Confidentiality—School Nutrition Programs
Confidentiality is a set of rules that limits access to or places restrictions on certain types of information. All applications and records concerning any individual made or kept by any public officer or agency relating to free and reduced-price (F/RP) meal eligibility are considered confidential.
Although a program or person may be authorized under the National School Lunch Act to receive F/RP meal eligibility information, there must be a legitimate need to know in order to provide a service or carry out an authorized activity. The California Department of Education, local educational agencies (LEA), and schools must ensure that data systems, records, and other means of accessing a student’s eligibility status are limited to officials directly connected with the school meal programs, and may not be open to examination for any purpose not directly connected with the administration of any F/RP meal program.
Both federal and state laws impose strict confidentiality requirements regarding information gathered to determine a child’s eligibility for F/RP meals. The intent of these laws is to limit access to meal applications and any records concerning a child’s F/RP meal benefit eligibility status, such as the child’s name and F/RP meal category. The records shall not be available to any individual for any purpose not directly connected with the administration of any F/RP meal program. LEAs must establish procedures that limit access to only those assigned by the LEA to determine eligibility. In California, there are some state laws that supersede federal regulations pertaining to confidentiality.
California state laws govern the disclosure of information contained in F/RP meal applications. Since they are more restrictive than federal regulations and guidelines, they supersede federal regulations pursuant to California Education Code Section 49558. Individual student F/RP meal eligibility information may not be open to examination for any purpose unless directly connected with the School Nutrition Programs (SNP) Administration or an investigation, prosecution, criminal or civil proceedings conducted in connection with the administration of any SNPs.
California Education Code Section 49557
California Education Code (EC) Section 49557 focuses on the availability of free and reduced-price (F/RP) meal applications, the nondiscriminatory treatment of recipient students, and prevention of overt identification. Overt identification is any action that may reveal that a student receives (or potentially receives) F/RP meal benefits, and it is considered a breach of confidentiality.
State law requires school food authorities (SFA) to develop procedures for protecting F/RP student identities.
EC 49557(b) states:
The governing board of each school district and each county superintendent of schools shall formulate a plan, which shall be mailed to the State Department of Education for its approval, that will ensure that children eligible to receive free and reduced-price meals and milk shall not be treated differently from other children.
Each SFA’s procedures for safeguarding F/RP application information and preventing overt identification is detailed within that SFA’s Free and Reduced-price Meal Policy Statement (Form SNP-NSLP-02), which is available in the Child Nutrition Information and Payment System Download Forms section. This form is submitted to the California Department of Education (CDE) for approval when a new sponsor applies for the meal program or implements a major procedural change.
California Education Code Section 49558
EC 49558 specifies the laws governing the confidentiality of school meal applications and records and provides details on how the information therein can be shared or used.
EC 49558(a) states:
a) All applications and records concerning any individual made or kept by any public officer or agency in connection with the administration of any provision of this code relating to free or reduced-price meal eligibility shall be confidential, and may not be open to examination for any purpose not directly connected with the administration of any free or reduced-price meal program, or any investigation, prosecution, or criminal or civil proceeding conducted in connection with the administration of any free or reduced-price meal program.
Although a program or person may be authorized under the National School Lunch Act (NSLA) to receive F/RP meal eligibility information, there must be a legitimate need to know in order to provide a service or carry out an authorized activity. The CDE, local educational agencies (LEA), and schools must ensure that data systems, records, and other means of accessing a student’s eligibility status are limited to officials directly connected with the school meal programs, and may not be open to examination for any purpose not directly connected with the administration of any F/RP meal program.
EC 49558 does not prohibit LEAs from sharing meal eligibility information so that individual students continue to receive school meals when moving from one school district to another, either at the beginning of or during the school year. However, both districts must ensure that the information remains confidential and is used solely for determining a student’s meal eligibility. Please refer to Management Bulletin SNP-12-2015: Updated Guidance on Sharing of School Meal Applications on the CDE Management Bulletins Web page.
All schools are required to have a board policy in place that describes the F/RP meal eligibility disclosure process and names the persons and/or positions providing and receiving meal eligibility data prior to any disclosure. The policy must include the following:
- How indicators of meal eligibility may be kept with a student’s permanent record
- How any public release of this data will be prevented
- How shared meal data must be destroyed after its intended use
- How the data will be used and protected from unauthorized use
- What penalties should be imposed for misuse or improper disclosure of the data
Please note that California state law is stricter regarding the disclosure of any F/RP meal information and, therefore, supersedes related federal regulations.
Code of Federal Regulations
Title 7, Code of Federal Regulations (7 CFR), Section 245.6, contains provisions related to the disclosure of confidential information on the household application for F/RP meals.
Section 245.6(k) of 7 CFR addresses the criminal penalties for improper release of information in accordance with Section 9(6)(C) of the Richard B. Russell NSLA Title 42, United States Code (U.S.C.), Section 1758(b)(6)(C).
7 CFR, Section 245.6(k) states:
(k) Penalties for unauthorized disclosure or misuse of information. In accordance with section 9(b)(6)(C) of the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act (42 U.S.C. 1758[b][C]), any individual who publishes, divulges, discloses or makes known in any manner, or to any extent not authorized by statute or this section, any information obtained under this section will be fined not more than $1,000 or imprisoned for up to 1 year, or both.
DisclosureDisclosure as defined in 7 CFR, Section 245.6(f), means revealing or using individual children’s program eligibility information that is obtained through the F/RP meal eligibility. Disclosure includes, but is not limited to, access, release, or transfer of personal data about children by means of print, tape, microfilm, microfiche, electronic communication, or any other means. It includes eligibility information obtained through the F/RP meal application or through direct certification and whether the children are eligible for F/RP meals.
Preventing Overt Identification
Overt identification is any action that may result in a child being recognized by others as eligible (or potentially eligible) to receive or certified for free or reduced-price (F/RP) school meals. Local educational agencies (LEA) must assure that a child’s eligibility status is not identified at any point in the process of providing F/RP meals, including notification of the availability of F/RP meal benefits, certification and notification of eligibility, provision of meals in the cafeteria, and the point of service. Unauthorized disclosure or overt identification of children receiving F/RP meal benefits is prohibited under the National School Lunch Act and in California Education Code (EC) Section 49557.
EC 49557(b)(2) states, "There shall be no overt identification of any of the children by use of special tokens or tickets or by any other means."
EC 49557(b)(4) states, "The children shall not be required to use a separate dining area, go through a separate serving line, enter the dining area through a separate entrance, or consume their meals or milk at a different time."
EC 49557(c) states, "When more than one lunch or breakfast or type of milk is offered pursuant to this article, the children shall have the same choice of meals or milk that is available to those children who pay the full price for their meal or milk."
Schools and LEAs must ensure that children who receive F/RP meal benefits are not overtly identified when they are provided additional services under certain programs or activities that are permitted to have access to children’s eligibility information, such as academic support under No Child Left Behind (NCLB)*. EC 49557 supersedes federal guidelines protecting overt identification which are detailed in the Confidentiality section of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Eligibility Manual.
*The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) replaced NCLB
The implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act may change parts of California Education Code (EC) Section 49558.
Except in very specific circumstances defined below, EC 49558 prohibits the disclosure of any individual child's free or reduced-price (F/RP) meal eligibility status for any purpose other than the administration of a school meal program.
Disclosure of Information to Other Local Educational Agencies
EC 49558 does not prohibit districts from sharing F/RP meal eligibility information in the case of students moving from one school district to another (as long as both districts ensure that the information remains confidential).
EC 49558(e) states:
(e) Notwithstanding subdivision (a), a school district, charter school, or county office of education may release the name and eligibility status of a pupil participating in the free or reduced-price meal program as follows:
(1) To the Superintendent for purposes of determining funding allocations under the local control funding formula and for assessing the accountability of that funding.
(2) Upon request, to another school district, charter school, or county office of education that is serving a pupil living in the same household as an enrolled pupil for purposes related to free or reduced-price meal program eligibility and for data used in local control funding formula calculations.
(f) Information released pursuant to subdivision (c), (d), or (e) shall adhere to all of the following requirements:
(1) Individual indicators of participation in a free or reduced-price meal program shall not be maintained in the permanent record of any pupil, unless otherwise authorized by law.
(2) The public release of information regarding individual pupil participation in a free or reduced-price meal program is not permitted.
(3) All other confidentiality requirements imposed by law or regulation are met.
The sharing of this information is also allowed upon request with another school district, charter school, or county office of education that is serving a student in the same household as an enrolled student for F/RP program eligibility purposes and for data used in Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) formula calculations.
For more information about the LCFF, please refer to the California Department of Education LCFF Web page.
Disclosure of Information to an Authorized Public Officer or Agency
EC 49558(b) states:
(b) Notwithstanding subdivision (a), a public officer or agency may allow school district employees, who are authorized by the governing board of the school district, to disclose from the individual meal records only the pupil’s name and school meal eligibility status, solely for purposes of disaggregation of academic achievement data or to identify pupils eligible for public school choice and supplemental educational services pursuant to the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (Public Law 107-110), if the public agency ensures the following:
(1) The public agency has adopted a policy that allows for the use of individual records for these purposes.
(2) No individual indicators of participation in any free or reduced-price meal program are maintained in the permanent record of any pupil, unless otherwise allowed by law.
(3) No public release of information regarding individual pupil participation in any free or reduced-price meal program is permitted.
(4) All other confidentiality provisions required by law are met.
(5) The information collected regarding individual pupils certified to participate in the free or reduced-price meal program is destroyed when it is no longer needed for its intended purpose.
The governing board of a local educational agency (LEA) must authorize specific employees to disclose individual F/RP meal eligibility status information if the purpose is:
- Solely for the breakdown of academic achievement data. In this case, a public officer or agency can share a child’s name and F/RP meal eligibility status with the LEA’s testing coordinator.
- Only identify students in Program Improvement Schools who are low-performing and low-income and to whom the district may offer supplemental educational services and/or school choice. A public officer or agency can share a child’s name and F/RP meal eligibility status with the LEA’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB)* coordinator.
- The LEA’s governing board must adopt a policy that clearly identifies either the persons or positions allowed to share and receive individual F/RP eligibility information and states the purpose for sharing the information, prior to any employee disclosing F/RP information pertaining to a child’s meal eligibility status.
*The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) replaced NCLB
Disclosure of Information to Assistance Programs
In California, information on the school lunch program application can be shared with the local agency that determines eligibility under the Medi-Cal and CalFresh programs if the child is approved for free meals, and only with applicant consent for sharing this information.
EC 49558(c) states:
(c) Notwithstanding subdivision (a), the school districts and county superintendents of schools may release information on the School Lunch Program application to the local agency that determines eligibility under the Medi-Cal program if the child is approved for free meals and if the applicant consents to the sharing of information pursuant to Section 49557.2.
According to federal regulations, LEAs may opt to disclose children’s F/RP meal eligibility information to Medicaid (known as Medi-Cal in California) officials if the state agency has not prohibited such disclosure to these health insurance programs and the family does not decline to have their children’s eligibility information released. Disclosure is always an option, not a requirement. California has incorporated its own version of this guideline under EC 45558(d) which supersedes federal regulations.
EC 49558(d) states:
A child’s individual eligibility information must be protected and is subject to additional disclosure limits beyond the current school year. Subsections of EC 49558 supersede federal regulations and provide more guidance on the sharing of individual student meal eligibility information with specific programs.
(d) Notwithstanding subdivision (a), the school districts and county superintendents of schools may release information on the School Lunch Program application to the local agency that determines eligibility under the CalFresh program or to an agency that determines eligibility for nutrition assistance programs authorized by Chapter 2 (commencing with Section 210.1) of Subtitle B of Title 7 of the Code of Federal Regulations, if the child is approved for free or reduced-price meals and if the applicant consents to the sharing of information pursuant to Section 49557.3.
The following management bulletins are available on the California Department of Education School Nutrition Programs Management Bulletins Web page:
- SNP-12-2015: Guidance on Sharing of School Meal Applications
- CNP-03-2015: Exceptions to Sharing Eligibility Data in the Child Nutrition Programs
- SNP-18-2014: Amendment to Sharing of Meal Applications for Medi-Cal
- SNP-31-2015: Sharing School Meal Applications with CalFresh Offices
- SNP-05-2015: Preventing Overt Identification of Children
- SNP-02-2018: Local Control and Accountability Confidentiality
U.S. Department of Agriculture
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Which confidentiality guideline should a local educational agency (LEA) follow if there is conflicting information in federal and state rules?
LEAs are required to follow the stricter laws and regulations. In the case of school meal application information confidentiality, state law or California Education Code (EC) sections 49557 and 49558 is stricter and, supersedes federal guidelines including information contained in the Confidentiality section of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Eligibility Manual, School Meals: Determining and Verifying Eligibility, or any periodic memorandums issued.
USDA Policy Memorandum SP 16-2016 states, “Once appropriate agreements are in place with requesting entities, disclosure of all individual eligibility information to any entity may be made if the child’s parent or guardian elects to share the information.” Should this rule be followed in California?
No. California does not allow the release of this information even with parental or guardian consent unless it is within the narrow guidelines of sharing it with the local agency which determines eligibility under the Medi-Cal/Medicaid or CalFresh programs. Please refer to EC 49558 for details.
Can an LEA share its free and reduced-price (F/RP) meal data with another LEA for Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) purposes?
Yes. Assembly Bill 1599 allows LEAs to obtain F/RP meal data for LCFF purposes from other LEAs as students transfer from one LEA to another. As of January 1, 2015, EC 49558 allows LEAs to disclose F/RP meal eligibility data with other LEAs for National School Lunch Program (NSLP) meal certification purposes, and for LCFF data collections and calculations.
Can an LEA provide the actual reporting form (F/RP meal application or alternative household income verification form) to auditors for LCFF review purposes?
Yes. LEAs and their food service departments may allow auditors access to individual F/RP meal applications for review, either for NSLP audits or LCFF audits. However, all related documentation and information provided by LEA staff (including any food service staff) to auditors must be kept in strict confidence, adhering to all state and federal privacy laws, and must be used solely for the purpose of determining whether a student is correctly designated as eligible for F/RP meals. Districts have the authority to keep all records on site and not allow auditors to remove the original or copies of a child’s F/RP meal application. Questions related to LCFF funding can be directed to LCFF staff at the California Department of Education Office of Principal Apportionment and Special Education by e-mail at PASE@cde.ca.gov.
Can an LEA identify and share individual F/RP meal data with providers of supplemental educational services for students who qualify as low income and low performing in Program Improvement Schools?
Yes, under certain circumstances. For Program Improvement Schools, EC 49558 allows school district employees, who are authorized by the governing board of the school district, to disclose only the pupil’s name and school meal eligibility status from the individual meal records, solely for purposes of disaggregation of academic achievement data or to identify pupils eligible for public school choice and supplemental educational services pursuant to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. However, there must be an approved board policy in place that names the parties or positions who are allowed to disclose and receive the F/RP meal eligibility information prior to any such transactions.
Does EC 49558 allow districts to provide a list of students who have not turned in their meal application and are not on the direct certification (DC) list to the school district or superintendent to remind the students to submit a meal application?
No. EC 49558 does not allow a school district, charter school, or county office of education (COE) to release a list of students who have not submitted their meal applications to the district superintendent for the purpose of reminding students to submit meal applications. The submission of meal applications is not mandatory. Such sharing may overtly identify those who qualify for and participate in the NSLP.
EC 49558 allows the sharing of a list with the district superintendent for the purposes only of determining funding allocations under the LCFF and for assessing the accountability of that funding.
Can a class teacher put a list of names of those students on the board, who have not turned in their meal application and are not on the DC list, to remind them to submit the meal application?
No. The National School Lunch Act requires that households complete an F/RP meal application if they choose to participate in the NSLP. However, households that choose not to apply for the NSLP cannot be required to submit an application for F/RP meal benefits.
COEs often run special day classes and provide meals to students in a school district while the district collects the F/RP meal data, provides meals, and collects reimbursements for those meals. The COEs in turn report enrollment for those students in the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System (CALPADS) and need to obtain the F/RP meal data from the collecting district. Can the district release that information to the COE?
Yes. The legal intent in Assembly Bill 1599 and EC 49558 applies to both public school districts and COEs. Information sharing is allowed between LEAs as students transfer for NSLP/meal certification purposes and LCFF data collection only. All other confidentiality provisions still remain in effect and information may not be open to examination for any purpose not directly related to the administration of any F/RP meal program. CALPADS Report 1.19 is used by COEs and charter schools operating county programs to report the transfer of students that are served by the county but funded through the district (or served by the charter but funded through the county). These counts are then transferred to the appropriate LEA for purposes of LCFF funding calculations.
Can a school share F/RP meal eligibility status if they do not have a board policy on this subject?
No. Your district must have a board policy in place prior to the disclosure of this information, and the policy must identify, either by name or position, who will be sharing what with whom, and why and must meet EC requirements.
Is it true that any meal eligibility information that is shared must be destroyed after it is used for its intended purpose?
Yes. Please refer to EC 49558(b)(5) which states, “The information collected regarding individual pupils certified to participate in the free or reduced-price meal program is destroyed when it is no longer needed for its intended purpose.”
If a school wants to provide discounts to students that qualify for F/RP meals, can they share the meal application information for that purpose?
No. State law does not provide approval for food services to disclose a child’s meal eligibility status. If a parent or legal guardian would like to receive benefits for other services, they may provide their eligibility notification directly to designated school staff. The school may want to place a statement in the meal application packet that informs parents to make copies for such purposes.
May teachers, administrators, health aides, etc., access a student's meal record to offer discounts on lockers, tests, afterschool programs, regional occupation programs, gift baskets, and so on?
No. The law does not allow school staff, who are not on a need to know basis for the School Nutrition Programs, to access a student’s meal record for any reason.
Does EC 49558 apply to charter schools and residential child care institutions (RCCI)?
Yes. Any charter school or RCCI that operates the NSLP would be bound to abide by EC 49558 confidentiality provisions in subsection (a) as it applies to any record “kept by a public officer or agency.” The exceptions to the rule in subsection (b) also apply to public officers and agencies so it would allow charter schools and child care institutions to share the information for other purposes set forth in that section.