Universal Meals Program Questions and Answers
Beginning in School Year (SY) 2022–23, California will become 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:
- California’s State Meal Mandate is expanded to include both a nutritiously adequate breakfast and lunch for all children each school day.
- California’s Universal Meals Program requires very high poverty schools to participate in a federal provision.
- The California State Legislature allocates funds to provide additional state meal reimbursement to cover the cost of the Universal Meals Program.
To support the implementation of the California Universal Meals Program, the California Department of Education (CDE) Nutrition Services Division (NSD) is scheduling a series of informational listening sessions, creating a universal meals web page with resources, and collecting frequently asked questions (FAQ) through our universal meals mailbox UniversalMealsSY22@cde.ca.gov. Below are the most recent FAQs.
Frequently Asked Questions
Which schools are required to participate?
California Universal Meals updates 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.
When does this state requirement begin?
Schools are required to implement the California Universal Meals Program beginning in SY 2022–23.Please note, currently in SY 2021‒22, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) provided Child Nutrition Response #85, a waiver that allows local educational agencies participating in federal school nutrition programs to provide free meals to students through the Seamless Summer Feeding Option. This waiver expires on June 30, 2022.
Do LEAs need to begin serving two meals beginning July 1, 2022? Do we need to provide two meals to our summer school students?
No, the requirements under the Universal Meals Program go in effect when an LEAs 2022-23 SY begins.
What meals can our school serve and claim to fulfill the California Universal Meals Program requirements?
Local educational agencies (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 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.
Do supper meals count towards the two meals required under the California Universal Meals Program?
No, local educational agencies 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.
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. Exceptions exist for nonclassroom based charter schools. Each student may request a breakfast and lunch at no charge regardless of their eligibility for free or reduced-price meals.
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 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 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 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.
We do not participate in the NSLP or SBP. Do universal free meals apply to us?
Yes, the state meal mandate applies to all local education agencies (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.
If our school does not have a cafeteria, are we exempt from providing breakfast and lunch?
No. Education Code (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.
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 local education agencies must also participate in the NSLP and SBP. There are no minimum free or reduced-price eligibility requirements to participate.
Is there a separate application for the California Universal Meals Program?
No, there will not be a separate application specifically for the California Universal Meals Program. However, local education agencies 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.
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 additional state meal reimbursement that is the difference between the federal and state free and reduced-price meal reimbursement amount and the paid rate. For example, during the 2019‒20 SY, if a school lunch was served and claimed to a paid student and the federal meal reimbursement rate was $0.32, under the Universal Meals Program, this meal would be eligible for an additional $3.09 in state meal reimbursement.
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 local education agencies (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.
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. You can find more details about the state meal mandate and distance learners in the CDE California State Meal Mandate for 2021–22 Management Bulletin web page.
Can breakfast or lunch be sent home with students?
Under current USDA noncongregate feeding waivers, this is allowed. However, the USDA must issue an updated waiver for this to continue in SY 2022–23.
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 very high poverty schools apply to participate in a federal meal provision such as CEP or Provision 2. For the purposes of Universal Meals, very high poverty schools are defined as those who 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.
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 Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), can increase the amount of federal reimbursement provided to local education agencies due to the federal formula established to fund meals served under CEP.
What is the advantage of Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) if all schools are able to participate in the California Universal Meals Program?
Local education agencies (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.
Do schools still need to collect free and reduced-price meal applications if all children are receiving free meals?
Yes, local education agencies 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.
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 local education agencies (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.
Will local education agencies (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.
What happens if an local education agencies (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.
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 additional reimbursement for the second meals. Please visit CDE Management Bulletin SNP-06-2019: Competitive Foods: Serving Second Meals in the School Nutrition Programs for more information regarding second meals https://www.cde.ca.gov/ls/nu/sn/mbsnp062019.asp.
What options do local education agencies 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.
Are local education agencies 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.
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.
More information can be found on the CDE AB 130, Universal Meals Listserv web page.
A Universal Meals Listening Session is scheduled for January 11, 2022, at 2 p.m. The listening session is free. Please register in advance for Universal Meals Listening Session scheduled for January 11, 2022, at 2 p.m..
Previous Universal Meals Listening Sessions are located at COVID-19 Guidance In the Child Nutrition Programs web page. The October 5, 2021, listening session can be found here.
A CDE Management Bulletin and web page specific to the California Universal Meals Program is forthcoming.