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National School Lunch Program

Information about applying for and administering the National School Lunch Program (NSLP).

Program Information

What is the National School Lunch Program?

The National School Lunch Program External link opens in new window or tab. is a federally funded program that assists schools and other agencies in providing nutritious lunches to children at reasonable prices. In addition to financial assistance, the program provides donated commodity foods to help reduce lunch program costs. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is responsible for overseeing the program nationally. In California, the program is administered by the California Department of Education (CDE), Nutrition Services Division.

Why should we participate in the National School Lunch Program?

For children, the National School Lunch Program provides a nutritious meal that contains one-third of the recommended dietary allowance of necessary nutrients. For parents, the program offers a convenient method of providing a nutritionally balanced lunch at the lowest possible price. For schools, the program enhances children's learning abilities by contributing to their physical and mental well being. Studies have shown that children whose nutritional needs are met have fewer attendance and discipline problems and are more attentive in class.

Are we required to offer lunch?

Yes, California Education Code (EC) Section 49501.5 requires all public school districts, county offices of education, and charter schools serving students in grades transitional kindergarten through grade 12 (TK–12) to provide two meals free of charge (breakfast and lunch) during each school day to students requesting a meal, regardless of their free or reduced-price meal eligibility. State reimbursements will be provided for reduced-price and paid meals to ensure local educational agencies (LEA) receive the same reimbursement for those meal categories as they would for meals served at the free reimbursement rate. The state meal mandate combined with the state reimbursement establishes the Universal Meals Program in California. LEAs are still required to abide by federal regulations and guidelines as Universal Meals is meant to supplement, not replace, the federal school nutrition programs. LEAs operating standard meal counting and claiming must continue to collect the required household meal applications and determine students’ eligibility for free and reduced-price meals. LEAs operating under a provision, such as the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) or Provision 2 (in a non-base year), must collect alternative income forms to determine supplemental and concentration grants under the Local Control Funding Formula.

While participation in the School Nutrition Programs is optional, all public school districts, county offices of education, and charter schools must comply with the state meal mandate to provide two meals free of charge during each school day to students requesting a meal. However, only LEAs that participate in the NSLP and School Breakfast Program (SBP) are eligible to receive the state meal reimbursement.

What type of lunch must be offered?

Please see our School Menu Planning Options page for meal pattern information and our Meal Patterns and Menu Planning page for complete information.

What is involved in operating a National School Lunch Program?

The lunch program must be open to all enrolled children. LEAs must count and claim meals in accordance with students’ approved individual eligibility status (excluding sites participating in the CEP or Provision 2 during a non-base year). Records must be kept to document that the lunch program follows all federal and state rules and regulations. Some of the records that must be kept are:

  • Meal production records and inventory records that document the amounts and types of food used.
  • The number of lunches served each day, by site and by category (free, reduced-price, and full price).
  • Applications submitted by families for free and reduced-price meals, by site, and a description of the follow-up actions taken to verify eligibility (if required based upon program participation).
  • Records of income, expenditures, and contributions received.

The CDE periodically conducts a comprehensive review of each agency's lunch program. Those agencies that annually receive $500,000 or more in federal funds (from all sources) must also be audited each year.

How do we get paid?

The National School Lunch Program is operated on a reimbursement basis, with agencies paid on the number of meals served. Agencies submit a monthly reimbursement claim through the Child Nutrition Information and Payment System (CNIPS). After the Department reviews and approves the claim, it is processed by the State Controller's Office and a check is issued. Agencies typically receive reimbursement within four to six weeks after submitting the reimbursement claim. Visit the Fiscal Nutrition Services web page for claim for reimbursement instructions and calculation worksheets.

Depending on an LEA’s eligibility, reimbursement is from federal funding and possibly state funds. Please visit the CDE's Rates, Eligibility Scales, and Funding web page for the current rates and grant opportunities.

The California Universal Meals Program is subject to budget appropriation. The state will provide supplemental funding intended to cover the difference between the federal free meal reimbursement rate and the reduced-price and paid reimbursement rates. This means LEAs participating in the NSLP and SBP will receive the federal reimbursement rate for meals served by student eligibility type, and state meal reimbursement that is the difference between the federal and state free and reduced-price meal reimbursement amount and the paid rate. For detailed information on reimbursement rates, please see the Child Nutrition Program Meal Reimbursement Rates web page.

Meals and program operations that fail to meet federal and state requirements are not eligible for reimbursement and noncompliance may result in fiscal findings and disallowance of reimbursement.

Follow @CDENutrition on Twitter.

Questions:   School Nutrition Programs Unit | 800-952-5609
Last Reviewed: Tuesday, May 14, 2024
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