Alternate Meals and Unpaid Meal Charges
Nutrition Services Division Management Bulletin
To: All School Nutrition Program Operators
Attention: Food Service Directors, Chief Business Officials, and District Superintendents
Date: February 2018
Reference: Title 7, Code of Federal Regulations, sections 210.10, 210.11, 210.12, 210.14, 210.23, 210.9, and 245.8; U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service Instruction 765-7 Revision 2, and Policy Memoranda SP 17-2014, SP 23-2017, SP 29-2017, SP 46-2016; and California Education Code sections 49531, 49550, 49552, 49553, 49557, 49557.5, and 49516; Senate Bill 250
Supersedes: Management Bulletin SNP-06-2015
Subject: Clarification for the Use of Alternate Meals in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs, and Additional Guidance on the Handling of Unpaid Meal Charges
This management bulletin (MB) updates and replaces the California Department of Education’s (CDE) current policy guidance regarding alternate meals provided to students who qualify for reduced and full price paid meals, but who do not have money available to pay for their school meals. This MB provides additional information regarding best practices for providing alternate meals, preventing student shaming and handling the unpaid meal charge policy requirements. CDE Management Bulletin SNP-05-2018, Senate Bill 250: Child Hunger Prevention and Fair Treatment Act of 2017 and USDA Meal Charge Policy Requirements provides more detail on the no shaming state law requirements.
Although an alternate meal (also known as an emergency meal) is not clearly defined in federal or California state regulations, the use of alternate meals refers to any meal served to a student that is different from the day’s advertised reimbursable meal. Alternate meals are most often provided to students who are unable to pay for their meal. These students may have documented doctor-approved meal substitutions or are students who have lost or forgotten their meal payment(s) or medium of exchange for the meal.
The following federal and California local educational agency (LEA) regulations, guidance, and laws govern alternate meals and delinquent meal payments:
- Title 7, Code of Federal Regulations (7 CFR), Section 210.10(a)(1): General nutrition requirements, states that “Schools must provide nutritious and well-balanced meals to all the children they serve.”
- The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Policy Memoranda SP 23-2017: Unpaid Meal Charges: Guidance and Questions and Answers; and SP 29-2017: 2017 Edition: Overcoming the Unpaid Meal Challenge: Proven Strategies from Our Nation’s Schools, provides guidance on best practice strategies designed to support School Nutrition Program (SNP) Operators and address unpaid meal charges.
- USDA Policy Memorandum SP 17-2014: Discretionary Elimination of Reduced Price Charges in the School Meal Programs, clarifies for SNP operators the permissible use of funds from the nonprofit school food service account (cafeteria fund) to lower or eliminate reduced-price student meal charges. In order to lessen the financial barriers that limit student access to meals served under the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and School Breakfast Program (SBP), SNP operators may lower or eliminate the reduced-price meal charges for their students at their discretion. Please refer to the USDA School Meals Policy Web page at http://www.fns.usda.gov/school-meals/policy for more information about this policy.
- California Education Code (EC) Section 49550(a) (often referred to as the State Needy Meal Mandate) states:
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[.]
- EC Section 49552 states:
For the purposes of this article, needy children shall be defined as those children who meet federal eligibility criteria for free and reduced-price meals as defined in Section 49531[.]
- 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(b)(c) states:
(b) 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 or reduced priced meals and milk shall not be treated differently from other children. These plans shall ensure each of the following:
(1) Unless otherwise specified, the names of the children shall not be published, posted, or announced in any manner, or used for any other purpose other than the National School Lunch Program.
(2) There shall be no overt identification of any of the children by the use of special tokens or tickets or by any other means.
(3) The children shall not be required to work for their meals or milk.
(4) 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.
(c) 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.
- EC Section 49557.5 (Effecftive January 1, 2018, as a result of SB 250) states:
(a) For purposes of this section, “local educational agency” means a school, school district, county office of education, or charter school.
(b)(1) A local educational agency, including a local educational agency in which there is a school that is required to serve a free or reduced-price meal during the school day pursuant to Section 49550 and at which all pupils are not eligible to be served breakfast and lunch under the Community Eligibility Provision or Provision 2 of the federal National School Lunch Act (42 U.S.C. Sec. 1751 et seq.), shall ensure that a pupil whose parent or guardian has unpaid school meal fees is not shamed, treated differently, or served a meal that differs from what a pupil whose parent or guardian does not have unpaid school meal fees would receive under that local educational agency’s policy. This paragraph does not prohibit a school from serving an alternative reimbursable meal to a pupil who may need one for dietary or religious reasons.
(2) If a local educational agency is required to provide to the department or to the United States Department of Agriculture a copy of the meal charge policy required pursuant to memorandum SP 46-2016 issued by the United States Department of Agriculture, the local educational agency or governing board or body of the local educational agency, as applicable, shall make that policy public.
(c) School personnel and volunteers at a local educational agency that serves nutritionally adequate meals to pupils during the instructional day shall not allow any disciplinary action that is taken against a pupil to result in the denial or delay of a nutritionally adequate meal, as defined in Section 49553, to that pupil.
(d) A local educational agency shall not take any action directed at a pupil to collect unpaid school meal fees. A local educational agency may attempt to collect unpaid school meal fees from a parent or guardian, but shall not use a debt collector, as defined in Section 803 of the federal Consumer Credit Protection Act (15 U.S.C. Sec. 1692a).
(e) A local educational agency shall notify a parent or guardian of the negative balance of a pupil’s school meal account no later than 10 days after the pupil’s school meal account has reached a negative balance. Before sending this notification to the parent or guardian, the local educational agency shall exhaust all options and methods to directly certify the pupil for free or reduced-price meals. If the local educational agency is not able to directly certify the pupil, the local educational agency shall provide the parent or guardian with a paper copy of, or an electronic link to, an application with the notification and contact the parent or guardian to encourage application submission.
(f) To the extent that the expense is reimbursable under the federal National School Lunch Program, a local educational agency shall reimburse school meal fees paid by a pupil’s parent or guardian when fees were paid or unpaid fees debt accrued during any time that the pupil would have been determined, as identified by the local educational agency’s review pursuant to subdivision (e), to be eligible for free or reduced-price school meals.
(g) Nothing in this section is intended to allow for the indefinite accrual of unpaid school meal fees.
(h) This section shall only apply to a local educational agency that provides school meals through the federal National School Lunch Program or the federal School Breakfast Program.
(Added by Stats. 2017, Ch. 726, Sec. 3. (SB 250) Effective January 1, 2018.)
- EC Section 49531 states:
Any child nutrition entity may apply to the State Department of Education for all available federal and state funds so that a nutritionally adequate breakfast or lunch, or both, may be provided to pupils each school day at each school in the districts or maintained by the county superintendents of schools, or at private schools and parochial schools and to children receiving child development services. The State Board of Education shall adopt rules and regulations for the operation of lunch and breakfast programs in school districts. A child nutrition entity which receives state funds pursuant to this article, shall provide breakfasts and lunches in accordance with state and federal guidelines.
A nutritionally adequate breakfast, for the purposes of this article, is one that qualifies for reimbursement under the federal CNP regulations, meets a minimum of one-fourth of the current Recommended Dietary Allowance established by the National Research Council, and incorporates the current U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans. A nutritionally adequate lunch is one that qualifies for reimbursement under the CNP regulations, meets one-third of the Recommended Dietary Allowance established by the National Research Council and incorporates the current U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
State reimbursement for meals provided pursuant to this article shall be limited to meals provided to pupils who are within the relevant definitions and criteria in federal statutes and regulations which prescribe eligibility for free and reduced price meals.
Providing Alternate Meals
Federal policy and SB 250 require SNP operators to include information about alternate meals in their local meal charge policy communication, as described in the CDE MB SNP-03-2017: Unpaid Meal Charges and Excess Account Balances, located on the CDE Cafeteria Funds Guidance Web page at https://www.cde.ca.gov/ls/nu/sn/mbsnp032017.asp.
A child’s eligibility determination directly affects an SNP operator’s alternate meal policy. The following are the federal and state regulations and laws governing the use of an alternate meal:
I. Free and Reduced-price Meals
- Regardless of a student’s financial ability to pay for a meal, the previously cited laws require public school districts (district) and county offices of education (COE) to provide students eligible for free and reduced-price (F/RP) meals with a reimbursable meal during each school day. The reimbursable meal shall be the same meal choice offered to students who qualify for F/RP meals (EC Section 49557[c]).
Therefore, districts and COEs cannot serve an alternate meal to a student eligible for a reduced-price meal who does not have the ability to pay or provide a medium of exchange for their meal on a given day, and must provide the student with the standard reimbursable meal.
- Districts and COEs shall formulate a plan to ensure that children eligible to receive F/RP meals are not treated differently from other children with respect to meal service (EC, Section 49557[b]).
- USDA Policy Memo SP 17-2014 provides guidance to SNP operators that they may now offer meals at no cost to students who would otherwise qualify for reduced-price benefits. The expenditures associated with covering the reduced-price student payments may be covered by the Cafeteria Fund; this policy does not extend to paid meals. SNP operators that choose to eliminate reduced-price meal charges will still claim the meals at the reduced-price rate. Before implementing this policy, SNP operators must update their site application(s) in the CDE Child Nutrition Information and Payment System before they stop collecting reduced-price meal charges.
II. Paid Meals
Under the federal CNP regulations, districts may serve students eligible for paid meals who lose or forget their meal money an alternate meal.
As a result of SB 250, effective January 1, 2018, EC Section 49557.5(b)(1) states that the new law ensures that a pupil whose parent or guardian has unpaid meal charges is not shamed, treated differently, or served a meal that differs from what a pupil whose parent or guardian does not have unpaid meal fees would receive under that LEA’s meal charge policy.
This means that the meal provided can be an alternate reimbursable meal if that is what your meal policy states, as long as it is nutritionally adequate according to EC Section 49553 and that all children with unpaid meal debt or no money to pay for the meal would receive that same meal.
A paid pupil, who has unpaid meal charges, is to be served a reimbursable meal, for as long as your federal meal policy allows.
NOTE: The length of time that LEAs will allow for the accrual of debt is based on local discretion, as defined in your unpaid meal policy. If your LEA does not have an unpaid meal policy in place that has been provided in writing to the household, SNP operators will be required to provide a standard reimbursable meal to all students that do not have cash in hand or have a negative meal balance until the end of the school year.
Pricing Alternate Meals
Alternate reimbursable meals are most often offered without charging students, though SNP operators have the discretion to charge when providing a reimbursable alternate meal as long as their meal charging policy is clearly communicated to households at the beginning of the school year or midyear if a student changes districts within that year.
Per USDA Policy Memo SP 29-2017: 2017 Edition: Overcoming the Unpaid Meal Challenge: Proven Strategies from our Nation’s School, reimbursable alternate meals are considered a program food and would be treated like a program food cost.
The Paid Lunch Equity (PLE) requirements (7 CFR, Section 210.14[e]) apply to reimbursable alternate meals served to children participating in the paid rate. However, unless an LEA is providing a large number of reimbursable meals at a low-cost (or no cost) to children eligible for paid meals, the USDA FNS would not expect the provision of reimbursable alternate meals to impact the PLE calculations (USDA Policy Memo SP 29-2017, page 43).
Options for Providing Reimbursable Alternate Meals
The CDE highly encourages SNP operators to annually review their unpaid meal charge policies and to consider the following alternate reimbursable meal options:
I. Reimbursable Meals as a Menu Item
- SNP operators may offer reimbursable alternate meals as a regular menu item. Having the reimbursable alternate meal as a menu item available for purchase every day will help ensure that children unable to pay will not be the only children eating the alternate meal.
- SNP operators opting to provide a reimbursable alternate meal will continue to receive federal reimbursement at the reduced-price or paid rate, helping to lessen the financial impact of unpaid meal charges.
II. Reimbursable Alternate Meals for SNP Operators Participating in the Offer versus Serve Provision
SNP operators participating in the offer versus serve provision, must offer children five food components for the NSLP, and four food items (and three food components) for the SBP. Alternate meals that do not allow children to select all food components or items are not reimbursable.
Meal Accomodations for Alternate Meals
SNP operators must ensure that children with disabilities have access to the same benefits and services provided to the other children. SNP operators opting to provide alternate meals to children with unpaid meal charges must ensure that children with disabilities have access to an alternate meal that is safe to consume, and must provide a modified alternate meal when necessary to accommodate a child’s disability.
For example, if an SNP operator provides children with unpaid meal charges an alternate meal that includes a peanut butter sandwich, a child with a peanut allergy must be offered a modified alternate meal to accommodate the needs of that child. SNP operators must consult with the LEA Section 504 Coordinator before denying a meal to children with disabilities. SNP operators have additional obligations to children with disabilities under federal law, per USDA Policy Memo SP 59-2016: Policy Memorandum on Modifications to Accommodate Disabilities in the School Meal Programs.
Best Practices for Preventing Student Shaming
Per SB 250, SNP operators are required to prevent the embarrassment or shaming of children with unpaid meal charges. This section provides key strategies to prevent student distress and provides positive alternatives for SNP operators to consider incorporating into their programs. SNP operators should consider the following:
I. Evaluate Individual Circumstances
- A student’s household may not have completed a meal eligibility application, and yet the student repeatedly comes to school without a meal from home or money to participate in the school meal program. In these situations, school officials may want to consider special circumstances in the home (e.g., potential physical, chemical, or emotional/psychological abuse/neglect, homelessness) may warrant the district contacting the district’s social worker or Child Protective Services.
- A student’s household may not have completed a meal eligibility application, but the district is aware that the student is eligible for F/RP meals. In these situations, a district’s local official may complete an application on behalf of the student. For the specific guidelines and requirements related to such applications, please refer to the USDA Special Issue of the Eligibility Manual for School Meals on the USDA School Meals Guidance and Resources Web page at http://www.fns.usda.gov/school-meals/guidance-and-resources.
- A student’s household may earn too much money to qualify for reduced-price meals but appear to be needy in other ways. This is a growing problem given the high cost of living in California and the existence of only one set of national income eligibility guidelines (IEG) for the 48 contiguous states. Districts may want to consider this issue when setting meal charges and/or alternate meal policies. An alternate meal policy must follow the federal IEGs, the USDA’s PLE Policy, and SNP operators must claim meals under the category for which the student is eligible. MB SNP-05-2018, SB 250: Child Hunger Prevention and Fair Treatment Act of 2017 and USDA Meal Charge Policy Requirements provides more information for SNP operators to apply for Community Eligibilty Provision or Provision 2.
II. Proactive Distribution of Alternate Meals
Notify the student prior to meal service that he or she will receive an alternate reimbursable meal, to prevent the singling out or embarrassing the child at the point of service (POS). SNP operators are encouraged to contact parents or guardians at the beginning of the school day, allowing time for families to submit a payment or provide a lunch from home prior to the meal service time.
III. Move the Point of Service
- Move the POS to the beginning of the lunch line to avoid and minimize the risk of the embarrassment in replacing a student’s regular meal with an alternate meal. This helps the cashier determine which children, if any, are unable to pay for their meal, and allows the cashier to address the issue discreetly before a child has chosen a meal.
- Per 7 CFR, Section 210.9(b)(9), SNP operators must count the number of free, reduced-price, and paid reimbursable meals served to children at the POS or through another counting system as approved by the CDE. SNP operators who opt to move the POS must have a monitor or other assurance that students have the required components for a reimbursable meal after passing through the lunch line to exit. Additionally, SNP operators must ensure that rosters, computer screens, or other equipment cannot be viewed by any unauthorized personnel and persons, including other students. For more information, please refer to USDA Policy Memo SP 45-2012: Preventing Overt Identification of Children Certified for Free or Reduced-price School Meals.
IV. Set Policies for Recovering Unrecovered or Delinquent Debt, Meal Payments, Alternate Meal Options, and for Notifying Households
- By July 1, 2017, SNP operators must develop and communicate in writing their clearly defined meal charge policy that includes unpaid meals, repayment plans, and alternate meal options. Additionally, SNP operators must develop policies for continually notifying parents of these policies.
- CDE MB SNP-03-2017: Unpaid Meal Charges and Excess Account Balances, provides guidance on the requirement for SNP operators to institute and clearly communicate to households a meal charge policy. CDE MB SNP-03-2017 is located on the CDE Cafeteria Funds Guidance Web page at https://www.cde.ca.gov/ls/nu/sn/mbsnp032017.asp.
- Effective January 1, 2018, SB 250 requires SNP operators to follow the Child Hunger Prevention and Fair Treatment Act of 2017. SB 250 states that all SNP operators are to:
- Ensure that a pupil whose parent or guardian has unpaid school meal fees is not shamed, treated differently, or served a meal that differs from what a pupil whose parent or guardian does not have unpaid school meal fees would receive under that LEA’s policy.
- Prohibit school personnel and volunteers at an LEA that serves nutritionally adequate meals to pupils during the instructional day from allowing any disciplinary action that is taken against a pupil to result in the denial or delay of a nutritionally adequate meal to that pupil.
- Notify a parent or guardian of the negative balance of a pupil’s school meal account no later than 10 days after the pupil’s school meal account has reached a negative balance. Additionally, before sending this notification to the parent or guardian, the SNP operator must exhaust all options and methods to directly certify the pupil for F/RP meals.
- Require an LEA to reimburse school meal fees paid by a pupil’s parent or guardian when fees are paid or unpaid fees debt accrued when a pupil would have been determined to be eligible for F/RP school meals. To the extent that these provisions would place additional requirements on LEAs, the bill would impose a state-mandated local program.
For more information, SB 250 is available on the California Legislative Information Web page at https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billTextClient.xhtml?bill_id=201720180SB250.
- Encourage the prepayment of meals for paid and reduced-price meals, thereby ensuring that students receive a nutritionally adequate meal on every school day. The SNP operators may even offer prepayment discounts (please note that if the prepayment discount lowers the meal price below your PLE pricing requirements, then a nonfederal funding source must be used to offset the difference between the discounted per meal price and the PLE pricing requirement). This will help to reduce long and slow-moving lines in the cafeteria and virtually eliminate overt identification of low-income children.
- Avoid the use of unappealing alternate meals that serve as a strategy for inducing the student to pressure his or her parents to repay charges accrued to the meal program.
- Consider operating the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) or Provision 2, as all meals are served to students at no charge, therefore eliminating unpaid meal charges for reimbursable meals.
For more information, CEP and Provision 2 guidance is available on the CDE SNP Community Eligibility Web page at https://www.cde.ca.gov/ls/nu/sn/cep.asp.
The resources below are helpful tools for LEAs to be successful in addressing unpaid meal charges:
CDE Management Bulletin SNP-05-2018 Senate Bill 250: Child Hunger Prevention and Fair Treatment Act of 2017 and USDA Meal Charge Policy Requirements
USDA Policy Memo: SP-57-2016: Unpaid Meal Charges: Guidance and Q&As (https://www.fns.usda.gov/unpaid-meal-charges-guidance-and-qas)
USDA Policy Memo: SP 46-2016: Unpaid Meal Charges: Local Meal Charge Policies (https://www.fns.usda.gov/unpaid-meal-charges-local-meal-charge-policies)
USDA Policy Memo: SP 43-2016: Ensuring Access to Free and Reduced-price School Meals for Low-Income Students (https://www.fns.usda.gov/ensuring-access-free-and-reduced-price-school-meals-low-income-students)
USDA Policy Memo: SP 17-2014: Discretionary Elimination of Reduced-price Charges in the Schools Meal Program (https://www.fns.usda.gov/discretionary-elimination-reduced-price-charges-school-meal-programs)
Guidance: USDA Overcoming the Unpaid Meal Challenge: Proven Strategies from Our Nation’s Schools (https://www.fns.usda.gov/school-meals/2017-edition-overcoming-unpaid-meal-challenge-proven-strategies-our-nations-schools)
Webinar: The Challenges of Unpaid Meals: Proven Strategies from Our Nation’s School
If you have any questions regarding this subject, please contact the Resource Management Unit (RMU) by e-mail at SNPCafeFundQuestions@cde.ca.gov to be directed to an RMU Specialist.