Pricing of Meals for Students, Debt, Alternate Meals

Meal Policy Guidance

Doing our best to ensure students receive nutritious meals.

School Nutrition Program operators across Minnesota are doing their best to provide healthy school meals to children under all circumstances. We are working hard to ensure that children have access to all the resources they need to succeed in school– including a nutritious breakfast, lunch and snack meals.

Of primary importance is the fact that it is difficult for hungry children to learn. And for too many of Minnesota’s students, school meals may be the only nutritious meals they receive.

But sometimes we find ourselves in the difficult position of a student in the lunch or breakfast line that does not have sufficient funds in their lunch account to pay for a meal. What can we do in these situations?

If your school or district has 40 percent or more of your students eligible for free meals via direct certification, consider the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) as a possible solution to the challenges related to collecting school meal funds. CEP can result in all students receiving a breakfast and lunch meal at no cost, thus eliminating the free/reduced-price/paid collection process.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service states that pricing policies for School Nutrition Programs are left to local discretion. Given that flexibility, it is important for districts/schools to use care and deliberation to develop well thought out meal policies that put the needs of students first. School food authorities (SFAs) need to clearly state how their school/district will extend credit for a student's meal or when to provide a nutritious alternate meal to a student in such circumstances. At no time should a meal policy target or shame students for financial considerations beyond their control. In every case, districts should exhaust all options to ensure students are not denied a nutritious meal.

Across Minnesota, creative strategies are being used to address these issues, including funds established by the PTA or other school or community organizations that provide resources to pay for children who forget or lose their money. At a minimum, schools should ensure that parents are fully aware of the policy adopted for children who do not have their meal money. While we recognize that providing meals for students who come to school without money for meals may present the school/district with financial challenges, research has demonstrated that learning is negatively impacted when students are hungry.

So, what can a district or school do?

1. Have good communication among all administrative groups in the school about the district/school policies relating to school lunch. This should include information on data privacy.
2. Thoroughly evaluate individual student circumstances regarding ability to pay. Notify and/or work with principals, school counselors and/or teachers to understand the student and household situation to determine if a household is likely to be eligible for free or reduced-price meals, and whether an application should be prepared if the household has not done so.
3. Set up a parent notification system when a student’s meal payment account is low and/or when a student has begun charging their meals. The notification of parents should be done in a way that is consistent and does not cause embarrassment to students or create stigma. When possible, consider using an automated calling system or email alert to notify parents of negative balances, or consider implementing an auto-pay option for parental convenience.
4. Encourage the pre-payment of meals for full price and reduced-price meals, thereby ensuring that children receive a nutritionally adequate meal every school day. Some districts provide financial incentives, discounts or prize drawings to encourage pre-payment of meals.
5. Develop a Meal Charge Policy that is flexible and fits your school’s philosophy of “every child ready to learn.”
6. Inform parents and students at least annually about the policy.
7. Solicit outside school or community groups to assist in establishing an “emergency meal fund” if necessary.
8. Consider providing an “all-they-want-to-eat” meal of fruits and vegetables.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 directs USDA to examine current policies and practices in this area, determine the feasibility of establishing national standards in this area, and provide recommendations regarding implementation of such standards. USDA is currently analyzing data on current practices and will be convening a group to discuss this in the future. More guidance on this important issue will be forthcoming from USDA.

There are no easy solutions to the problem of students going through the breakfast or lunch line but having no means to pay for the meal and yet not qualifying for a free meal. Charge policies and funds set up by community and parent groups to cover the meal cost are all part of the solution, and we are confident that each community can find solutions that are in the best interest of their children.

USDA recently provided a memo that allows SFAs to offer meals at no cost to students who would otherwise qualify for reduced-price meal benefits. The expenditures associated with covering the reduced-price student payments may be funded from the nonprofit food service account. Schools electing to take advantage of this flexibility continue to receive federal reimbursement based on meals claimed by students in the reduced price category. Only paid students would be charged for meals. SFAs are permitted to implement this option selectively between the programs (National School Lunch and School Breakfast) and serving sites they operate.

While USDA has a meal policy handout that provides minimal standards in its guidance on charge policies, Minnesota has long been a leader in looking beyond minimum requirements in order to better serve children. The Minnesota Department of Education will continue to support you in your efforts to create learning environments in which every child can flourish and thrive.