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Use of Alternate Meals

Nutrition Services Division Management Bulletin
Purpose: Policy, Beneficial Information

To: Public School Districts and County Offices of Education Participating in the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Programs

Number: USDA-SNP-01-2008

Attention: Food Service Directors and District Superintendents

Date: February 2008

Subject: Clarification for the Use of Alternate Meals in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs; and the Handling of Unpaid Meal Charges

Reference: Title 7, Code of Federal Regulations, sections 210.10, 210.12, 210.23, and 245.8; United States Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service Instruction 765-7, California Education Code sections 49531, 49550, 49552, 49553, 49557, and 49516.
Supersedes: Management Bulletin 96-107: Meal Payment Policies

This Management Bulletin (MB) updates and replaces our current policy guidance regarding “Alternate Meals” provided to students who qualify for reduced-price and full-price meals, but who do not have money available for their school meals. This MB provides additional information regarding best practices for handling unpaid meal charges and lost, stolen, and misused mediums of exchange (i.e., tickets, cards, etc.) for meal payments.


Although an “Alternate Meal” (also known as an “Emergency Meal”) is not clearly defined in federal or State regulations, the use of alternate meals refers to any meal served to a student that is different from the day’s advertised meal. Alternate meals are most often provided to students who have documented medical meal substitutions, or to those students who have forgotten their meal payment(s) or medium of exchange.

Title 7, Code of Federal Regulations, Part 210.10(a)(1) General nutrition requirements states, “Schools must provide nutritious and well-balanced meals to all the children they serve.”

California Education Code (EC) Section 49550 (often referred to as the “State Needy Meal Mandate”) specifies that, “Notwithstanding any other provision of law, each school district or county superintendent of schools, maintaining any kindergarten or any of grades 1 to 12, inclusive, shall provide for each needy pupil one nutritionally adequate free or reduced-price meal during each school day, except for family day care homes that shall be reimbursed for 75 percent of the meals served.”

EC Section 49553(a) states, “a nutritionally adequate meal, for the purposes of this article, is a breakfast or lunch as defined in EC Section 49531 that qualifies for reimbursement under the federal child nutrition program regulations.”

EC Section 49557(c) states, “When more than one lunch or breakfast or type of milk is offered pursuant to this article, the [free and reduced-price eligible] children shall have the same choice of meals or milk that is available to those children who pay full price for their meal or milk.”

Alternate Meal Policies
Free and Reduced-Price Meals

Irrespective of a student’s financial ability to pay for a meal, the laws cited above require that all students eligible for free and reduced-price meals receive a reimbursable meal during each school day. The reimbursable meal shall be the same meal choice offered to students who do not qualify for free or reduced-price meals [EC 49557(c)]. Therefore, school districts/county offices of education (COE) cannot serve an alternate meal to a student eligible for a free or reduced-price meal who does not have the ability to pay or provide a medium of exchange for his/her meal on a given day.

School districts/COEs need to formulate a plan to ensure that children eligible to receive free or reduced-price meals are not treated differently from other children with respect to meal service [EC 49557(b)]. 

Full-Price (“Paid”) Meals

Full-price meal payment and pricing policies are a matter of local discretion. Such local policies may include decisions on whether or not to extend credit or an alternate meal to children who forget their meal money. Please refer to the following United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Web site: of Meals

Best Practices/Options for Handling Unpaid Meal Charges

While schools are not obligated to provide meals to children eligible for full-price meals who forget their money, and schools may serve these children an alternate meal, reimbursable or not, the USDA and the California Department of Education (CDE) encourage schools to consider the following:

Evaluate Individual Circumstances
Offer Meal Charges and Set School/District Policy

Offering a meal charging policy can reduce the need for alternate meals (for the students in the full-price eligible category). Districts and COEs can then ensure children receive a reimbursable meal that is not different from the day’s advertised meal. The CDE encourages districts to have defined repayment policies for reduced-priced and paid meals.

Set Up a Fund to Loan Students Their Meal Payments

When school districts do not offer charge accounts, the Parent Teacher Association (PTA) or other school/community organization(s) may establish a fund to offset meal payments for those students who forget or lose their money.

Notifying Households

Develop policies regarding charge accounts, alternate meals and guidelines for continually notifying parents of these policies. Developing these policies is in the best interest of all parties involved and can ensure that all students have access to a nutritionally adequate school meal. Districts should, at a minimum:

Repayment Policies

The district can develop a repayment policy at their discretion. The repayment policy should include reimbursement to the cafeteria fund for uncollected charges owed by the household.

Handling Lost, Stolen, and/or Misused Meal Tickets/Meal Payments

Many districts and COE’s have advanced beyond physical “mediums of exchange” and have implemented electronic point of sale systems to account for student meal eligibility, exchange for cash payments, and to track meal charges. Therefore, the CDE recognizes that there are many new forms of payment beyond “tickets.”

Electronic point of sale systems can assist in eliminating issues associated with lost, stolen, and/or misused tickets/meal payments, as well as issues associated with alternate meals and overt identification.

The 1988 USDA policy for lost, stolen and misused meal tickets, FNS 765-7 Instruction, sets forth policy with respect to needy students who report lost or stolen meal tickets in schools and institutions that participate in the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs. In this Instruction, the term "ticket" refers to any and all forms of exchange used in the schools' or institutions' food service meal payment collection systems, including daily, weekly, or monthly paper tickets, cards, coins, or tokens.

Any meal payment system that limits the number of tickets reissued must conform to the following standards:

  1. Parents and students must be advised in writing of the school's policy regarding missing meal tickets and of the students' responsibility for their tickets. Such notice shall be provided at the time applications are distributed to households or upon approval for free or reduced-price benefits.
  2. A minimum of three ticket replacements, or special meal arrangements resulting from three lost or stolen tickets, must be allowed to each student within each school year.
  3. The school must maintain a list of students who have reported missing original ticket(s) in the current school year and the number of occurrences for each student. Prior to denying a meal to any student without a ticket, the list should always be reviewed to determine if the student has already had at least three ticket replacements or special meal arrangements for lost or stolen tickets within that school year.
  4. At least one advance written warning must be given to the full-price student and the parent(s) prior to refusing to allow additional meals or ticket replacements. The written warning must include an explanation that the student has repeatedly requested replacement tickets, and for each subsequent time the student fails to have a ticket, he/she will be expected to either bring breakfast or lunch or pay full price for a meal.
  5. Meals must always be offered to preprimary (any child before entering the first grade) and young primary students or for any handicapped/disabled students, who may be unable to take full responsibility for a meal ticket.

Using the above criteria, school food authorities may develop the most administratively feasible system to handle missing tickets as determined by individual school circumstances and the frequency of ticket issuance. In cases of repeated ticket loss or misuse, school administrators may wish to contact an adult household member to arrange a meeting to discuss the problem.

The USDA and CDE recommend that the meal or ticket replacement policy for missing free and reduced-price tickets (or medium of exchange) be extended to the loss of full-price tickets. If districts do not implement such a uniform policy covering both needy and non-needy students, schools must exercise extreme caution to preclude the overt identification of needy students when reissuing free or reduced-price meal tickets or when making arrangements to provide meals to students whose tickets are missing.

The following chart may assist with determining the requirements of providing meals to students in varying payment and non-payment situations.

At-a-Glance Alternate Meal Policy Chart

Eligibility Category

Child Brings Money/or Medium of Exchange

Child Loses Money/or Medium of Exchange

Child Forgets or Does Not Bring Money/or Medium of Exchange

Federal and/or
State Law

Best Practice

How to Claim


Not applicable

meal offered
(child cannot be denied a reimbursable meal or receive an alternate meal)

meal offered
(child cannot be denied a reimbursable meal or receive an alternate meal)

EC 49550

All children eligible for free meals receive at least one nutritionally adequate meal

Reimbursable as


meal provided

Follow district’s lost meal ticket policy

meal offered

meal offered
(child cannot be denied a reimbursable meal or receive an alternate meal)

EC 49550

EC 49557(c)

All children eligible for reduced-price meals receive at least one nutritionally adequate meal

Notify parents of non-payment according to district policy

Encourage pre-payment

If possible and financially feasible, develop household billing system

Reimbursable as

Full-Price Paid

Reimbursable meal provided

Follow district’s lost meal ticket policy

If allowed to charge for meal, reimbursable meal provided

Offer a Reimbursable Meal or offer an Alternate Meal (may be reimbursable or non-reimbursable)

Refer to district’s charging policy

Consider other alternatives (e.g., refer to school social worker, declaring them income eligible with appropriate documentation to support change in eligibility)

EC 49557(b)

EC 49557(c)

Notify parents of non-payment according to school policy

Allow to charge for meals


If possible and financially feasible, develop household billing system

Reimbursable as Paid, if a reimbursable or alternate reimbursable meal is offered

If the district declares a child’s eligibility has changed and he/she is now eligible for free or reduced-price meals (refer to free or reduced-price categories above)

If you have any questions regarding this MB, you may obtain contact information for your Field Services Child Nutrition Consultant at 916-324-9825 or 800-952-5609. You may also contact your county School Nutrition Programs specialist listed on form Caseload SNP in the Download Forms section of the Child Nutrition Information and Payment System.

Questions:   Nutrition Services Division | 800-952-5609
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