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Universal Meals Frequently Asked Questions

Frequently asked questions pertaining to the statewide Universal Meals Program for all school children.

In School Year (SY) 2022–23, California became the first state to implement a statewide Universal Meals Program for all school children. California’s Universal Meals Program is designed to build on the foundations of the federal National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and School Breakfast Program (SBP). There are three key pillars that have been established to ensure that the program is a success:

  1. California’s State Meal Mandate is expanded to include both a nutritiously adequate breakfast and lunch for all children each school day.

  2. California’s Universal Meals Program requires very high poverty schools to participate in a federal provision.

  3. The California State Legislature allocates funds to provide state meal reimbursement to cover the cost of the Universal Meals Program.

Frequently Asked Questions

  1. Which schools are required to participate?

    California Universal Meals updates California Education Code (EC), Section 49501.5 that requires public school districts, county offices of education, and charter schools to provide a breakfast and lunch to students that request a meal, free of charge for each school day beginning in SY 2022‒23.

    In order to receive state reimbursement for the two meals, local educational agencies (LEA) must participate in both the NSLP and SBP.

  2. When does this state requirement begin?

    Schools are required to implement the California Universal Meals Program beginning in SY 2022–23.

  3. What meals can our school serve and claim to fulfill the California Universal Meals Program requirements?

    LEAs can claim one breakfast and one lunch served to a student each school day. Meals served must comply with the federal program and nutrition requirements. To learn more about the federal program and nutrition requirements, please see the California Department of Education (CDE) NSLP and SBP Meal Patterns web page. LEAs cannot provide two meals during the same meal period, such as two breakfasts or two lunches to fulfill the requirement. After school meal supplements (snacks), are not considered a meal. Providing a snack in place of breakfast or lunch does not meet the intent of the California Universal Meals Program.

  4. Do supper meals count towards the two meals required under the California Universal Meals Program?

    No, LEAs must offer a compliant breakfast meal under the SBP and a compliant lunch meal under the NSLP in order to meet the requirements of the California Universal Meals Program.

  5. Which students are eligible for the California Universal Meals Program?

    All students attending public school districts, county offices of education, and charter schools are eligible. Each student may request a breakfast and lunch at no charge regardless of their eligibility for free or reduced-price meals.

  6. Are LEAs required to serve their preschool and transitional kindergarten (TK) students different meal patterns?

    There may be flexibility if the preschool and TK students are being served in the same service area at the same time. EC Section 48000 defines TK as the first year of a two-year kindergarten program and thus they are part of the kindergarten through grade 12 (K–12) school system. As part of the K–12 system they are not required to be served the preschool meal pattern and can instead be served using the same pattern as the kindergarten students, such as kindergarten through grade 5 (K–5).

    It is important to serve age appropriate meals, and the USDA recognizes that when schools are serving preschoolers at the same time as older children (comingled), adhering to two different meal patterns may be operationally challenging. Therefore, schools serving preschool children at the same time in the same service area as transitional kindergarten through grade 5 (TK–5) children may use the NSLP and SBP K–5 meal pattern. In general, the service area refers to the place where students pick up or choose their meal items. Keep in mind that schools serving preschool children separately from other age groups must use the preschool meal pattern.

  7. We do not participate in the NSLP or SBP. Do universal free meals apply to us?

    Yes, the state meal mandate applies to all LEAs as defined in Question 5 above. However, only LEAs that participate in the NSLP and SBP are eligible to receive the state meal reimbursement.

  8. What sort of documentation should be maintained to demonstrate compliance with the state meal mandate?

    If your LEA participates in the NSLP and the SBP, the documentation required by the federal programs will also demonstrate compliance with the state meal mandate, provided you make one free NSLP reimbursable lunch and one free SBP reimbursable breakfast available to all students each school day and participate in a provision program, if applicable.

    If your LEA is not a participant in the NSLP and the SBP:

    You will need to maintain documentation of how you are advertising the availability of meals to students and households.

    If the meals you serve are prepared by your agency, some examples of documentation you may choose to maintain include menu production records (meal preparation documentation such as menus, serving sizes, and nutrient analysis), your agency’s policies and procedures for meal service (breakfast and lunch), meal counts, and food invoices, or equivalent documentation to demonstrate compliance with the state meal mandate

    If the meals you serve are vended or prepared by another agency, some examples of documentation you may choose to maintain include transport records (delivery receipts), ordering and service information, menu/food list including serving sizes, vending contract, your agency’s policies and procedures for meal service (breakfast and lunch), meal counts served, invoices, or equivalent documentation, to demonstrate compliance with the state meal mandate.

  9. If our school does not have a cafeteria, are we exempt from providing breakfast and lunch?

    No. EC Section 49501.5 applies to all public schools, county offices of education, and charter schools. Schools without cafeterias can meet the requirements by procuring meals from another school or a meal vendor.

  10. Our school is low poverty, are we required to participate in the California Universal Meals Program and receive state reimbursement?

    Yes, all public schools, county offices of education, and charter schools are required to provide two nutritionally adequate meals (see Question 3 above). To receive the state meal reimbursement for these meals, the LEAs must also participate in the NSLP and SBP. There are no minimum free or reduced-price eligibility requirements to participate.

  11. Is there a separate application for the California Universal Meals Program?

    No, there is not a separate application specifically for the California Universal Meals Program. However, LEAs must be approved to participate in the federal NSLP and SBP to receive state meal reimbursement for the program. Participation in the NSLP and SBP requires an application process and approval by the CDE. To learn more about the NSLP application process, please see the CDE School Nutrition Programs Application Process web page.

  12. How much reimbursement is provided for California Universal Meals?

    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 local education agencies 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 CDE Child Nutrition Program Meal Reimbursement Rates web page.

  13. How can LEAs determine the amount of State reimbursement that was provided for California Universal Meals?

    LEAs can view the amount of reimbursement the State has provided for Universal Meals in the Child Nutrition Information and Payment System (CNIPS) under claims, payment summary. Separate schedules are provided for USDA – Federal Funds and Universal Meals. Additional detail about State funds can be found in the claim summary of each respective claim month.

  14. Does the California Universal Meals Program require that breakfast be offered to students in the classroom or after the bell?

    No, the California Universal Meals Program states that breakfast must be offered, but does not mandate the breakfast model that LEAs utilize. LEAs can choose which breakfast model best fits their school site needs. Breakfast After the Bell and the Breakfast in the Classroom are recommended as best practices because participation is shown to increase under these models. For more information, please see USDA's Ways to Serve Toolkit External link opens in new window or tab. (PDF)

  15. Does the new state meal mandate apply when students are not on campus (i.e., if they are independent study students or attending school virtually)?

    No, the state meal mandate only applies when students are on campus (or school-related premises). You can find more details about the state meal mandate and distance learners on the CDE California State Meal Mandate for 2021–22 Management Bulletin web page. A school district, county office of education, or charter school that offers independent study must provide meals on any school day lasting two or more hours, at a school site, resource center, meeting space, or other satellite facility.

  16. Does the state meal mandate apply when students are on a school-related field trip?

    Yes, public schools, county offices of education, and charter schools are required to provide two nutritionally adequate meals each school day, including days in which students are off campus attending school-related field trips.

  17. Can breakfast or lunch be sent home with students?

    No, LEAs participating in the NSLP and SBP cannot send meals home with students.

  18. Do schools have to apply for the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) or another Provision to provide universal free meals?

    The California Universal Meals Program requires that high poverty schools apply to participate in a federal meal provision such as CEP or Provision 2. For the purposes of Universal Meals, high poverty schools are defined as those that meet the minimum eligibility requirements to participate in the federal CEP. To meet this requirement, high poverty schools may apply to participate in Provision 1, 2, or 3, or CEP.

    For more information about CEP and Provisions, please see the CDE CEP web page and the CDE Provisions Claiming Alternatives web page.

  19. If all meals are reimbursed at the free rate, why do some schools have to apply for federal provisions?

    The intent of the California Universal Meals Program is to comply with federal School Nutrition Program requirements and to supplement, not supplant, the federal meal reimbursement. Universal feeding provisions, like CEP, can increase the amount of federal reimbursement provided to LEAs due to the federal formula established to fund meals served under CEP.

  20. What is the advantage of Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) if all schools are able to participate in the California Universal Meals Program?

    LEAs operating CEP are not required to collect meal applications or conduct verification activities. LEAs operating CEP also do not have to claim students by their individual eligibility status.

  21. Do schools still need to collect free and reduced-price meal applications if all children are receiving free meals?

    Yes, LEAs participating in the NSLP and SBP will need to collect meal applications. All federal regulations still apply for the determination of eligibility for the NSLP and SBP. Meal counts submitted for reimbursement need to be claimed in accordance with the amount of free, reduced-price, and paid meals served.

    Exceptions for collecting applications and traditional meal counting and claiming procedures exist for schools that participate in the Community Eligibility Provision and other Provisions.

  22. What is the difference between household meal applications and alternate income forms?

    The purpose of the household meal application is to certify a student’s eligibility for free or reduced-price meals or free milk benefits. Federal regulations require LEAs operating standard meal counting and collection procedures in the School Nutrition Programs to collect household meal applications.

    The purpose of the alternate income form is to identify that a student’s household meets the income eligibility criteria so that they may be included in the LEA’s unduplicated pupil count used to determine supplemental and concentration grants under Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF). Alternate income forms were developed to be used for LCFF purposes in instances when schools do not need to collect meal applications (e.g., an LEA operating Community Eligibility Provision). LEAs that are not operating provisions will continue to be required to collect household meal applications under the California Universal Meals Program.

  23. Will LEAs still be allowed to sell nonprogram foods while operating the California Universal Meals Program?

    Yes, LEAs will still be able to sell nonprogram foods while operating the California Universal Meals Program. If LEAs choose to sell nonprogram foods, they must continue to price items to ensure the percent of total revenue generated from their nonprogram foods sales is equal to or greater than the percent of total food costs.

  24. What happens if an LEA’s meals cost more than the free federal reimbursement rate? How does the LEA make up for the loss in revenue in their program when the California Universal Meals Program mandates that LEAs provide a free lunch and breakfast meal?

    LEAs may sell nonprogram foods to help increase nutrition program revenue. Examples of commonly sold nonprogram foods include: a la carte, second meals, adult meals, and smart snack compliant food and beverages sold in vending machines.

  25. Can LEAs charge for second meals?

    LEAs may offer to sell students a complete second meal. The second meal must meet USDA meal pattern requirements. The LEA will not receive reimbursement for the second meals. Please visit the CDE Management Bulletin SNP-06-2019: Competitive Foods: Serving Second Meals in the School Nutrition Programs for more information.

  26. Do Paid Lunch Equity (PLE) requirements apply to LEAs participating in California Universal Meals?

    LEAs that do not charge students for paid lunches at all sites are considered non-pricing sites and are exempt from PLE requirements in accordance with USDA Policy Memo SP 39-2011 - Revised External link opens in new window or tab.. Therefore, if an LEA operates all sites on the California Universal Meals Program or a Federal Provision, such as Provision 2 or the Community Eligibility Provision, PLE requirements do not apply.

  27. Are LEAs that participate in the California Universal Meals Program required to establish a Meal Charge Policy?

    A meal charge policy is not required from LEAs in which all sites are non-pricing. Therefore, if an SFA operates all sites on the California Universal Meals Program or a federal Provision, a meal charge policy is not required.

  28. What options do LEAs have to accommodate more students during meal times? How do we ensure students have ample time to consume meals if more students are going through the service lines at each meal time?

    The CDE Ensuring Adequate Time to Eat web page provides tips, strategies, and best practices for local program operators to ensure that children have adequate seat time during meal service. The CDE encourages program operators to engage with school district administrators and teachers to accomplish this goal.

  29. Are LEAs required to have a certain amount of time between breakfast service and lunch service?

    No, federal regulations do not establish a minimum amount of time between breakfast and lunch meal service periods. Federal regulations do state that schools offer lunch service between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.

  30. Does the state meal mandate apply to public school students that are attending nonpublic, nonsectarian schools?

    Since the pupils attending nonpublic, nonsectarian schools remain under the jurisdiction of the local LEA per EC Section 56365, the state meal mandate does apply and requires that nutritionally adequate meals be provided to these students. When entering into contracts with nonpublic, nonsectarian schools, the LEA must ensure that the contract contains provisions to satisfy the state meal mandate.

Additional Information

More information about the establishment of the California Universal Meals Program through Assembly Bill 130 can be found on the California Legislative Information web page External link opens in new window or tab..

Previous Universal Meals Listening Sessions are located on the Resources tab of the California Universal Meals web page.

Contact Information

If you have any questions regarding the Universal Meals Program, please email SNPInfo@cde.ca.gov.

Questions:   Nutrition Services Division | 800-952-5609
Last Reviewed: Wednesday, December 27, 2023
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