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School Meals

Unpaid Meal Charges

Last Published: 09/27/2016

school food service employees

The goal of the school meal programs is to provide nutritious meals to children during the school day. Children may receive breakfast and lunch at no cost to them if they are categorically eligible for free meals or if they qualify for free meals based on Federal poverty guidelines. Sometimes, however, children who do not qualify based on these standards would like a breakfast or lunch, but do not have money in their account or in-hand to cover the cost of the meal at the time of the meal service.

FNS recognizes that unpaid meal charges represent a difficult and complex issue that directly impacts the schools participating in our programs, as well as the children they serve. We are sensitive to the fact that local officials must balance their desire to provide for hungry children lacking the means to pay for meals with the demands of maintaining the financial viability of their school food service operation. FNS greatly appreciates the efforts of local officials working to address the challenge of unpaid meal charges in a way that meets the needs of schools, families, and children. 

This section of our site includes policy guidance, best practice resources, and other tools State agencies and local program operators can use in their efforts to overcome the challenge of unpaid meal charges. Looking ahead, FNS will continue to gather grassroots input on the current policies and practices of the State and local agencies that administer the school meal programs, and will use this information to continually update and improve our guidance on unpaid meal charges. Our overarching goal is to bring together the many different pieces of this issue, and to do what’s in the best interest of schools, families, and children.

Report to Congress

Congress mandated, in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA, Public Law 111-296; December 13, 2010), that USDA examine and report on the current policies and practices of State agencies and local educational agencies (LEAs) regarding meal charge policies and alternate meals. HHFKA also required USDA to report on the feasibility of establishing national standards for such policies and, if applicable, make recommendations for implementation.

To complete this report, FNS included questions about charge and alternate meal policies in a multi-year, nationally representative study and issued a Request for Information (RFI) entitled Unpaid Meal Charges. The results of the study and the 462 comment submissions we received during the RFI open comment period contributed greatly to the Report, and to our understanding and appreciation of this issue.

Policy Guidance

Unpaid Meal Charges Policy Guidance

  • SP 46-2016: Unpaid Meal Charges: Local Meal Charge Policies
  • SP 47-2016: Unpaid Meal Charges: Clarification on Collection of Delinquent Meal Payments
  • SP 57-2016: Unpaid Meal Charges: Guidance and Q&A

Other Relevant Policy Guidance

  • SP 43-2016: Ensuring Access to Free and Reduced Price School Meals for Low-Income Students
  • SP 37-2016: Meaningful Access for Persons With Limited English Proficiency (LEP) in the School Meal Programs: Guidance and Q&As
  • SP 51-2014: Eligibility Effective Date for Directly Certified Students
  • SP 17-2014: Discretionary Elimination of Reduced Price Charges in the School Meal Programs
  • SP 11 CACFP 06 SFSP 11-2011: Effective Date of Free or Reduced Price Meal Eligibility Determinations
  • FNS Instruction 113-1: Civil Rights Compliance and Enforcement – Nutrition Programs and Activities

Best Practice Resources

Handbooks and Guides