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USDA Seeks Public Feedback on Policies with School Meals Charges

Posted by Dr. Janey Thornton, Deputy Under Secretary, USDA Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services in Food and Nutrition
Oct 20, 2014
FNS works with states and school districts to ensure that schools are providing access to healthy meals to all children.
FNS works with states and school districts to ensure that schools are providing access to healthy meals to all children.

Ensuring access to nutritious food for America’s children is a top USDA priority. Our National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and School Breakfast Program (SBP) play vital roles to ensure healthy foods are available to our nation’s schoolchildren.  I have dedicated my career to these programs, and strongly believe in the power of their positive influence on public health.

Evidence shows that children who regularly eat balanced meals at school perform better in the classroom and are less likely to be overweight.  Their ability to learn in the classroom, grow up healthy, and reach their fullest potential depends on what we do right now to secure their future.

The Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) subsidizes all meals that are served to over 30 million students nationwide as part of the USDA school meals programs. Meals that are provided to low-income students are reimbursed at a higher rate, while meals served to other students are reimbursed for a smaller amount (up to $0.28 for breakfast and $0.42 for lunch). Schools are responsible for establishing meal prices for children who are not eligible for free or reduced price meals, accounting for the smaller reimbursement.  If children who pay for lunch don’t have enough money on the day of service, schools can extend credit to the child so that the child does not go hungry.  This essentially allows the child to “charge” the meal with the understanding that the school will be reimbursed by their parents at a later date.

While FNS considers access to healthy school meals a critical function of the NSLP and SBP, we also recognize that allowing children to “charge” school meals can have financial implications on individual schools and across school districts.  This is especially true when outstanding charges are not subsequently paid by parents, and could lead to financial losses for the school food service program.  Schools generally need both children’s payments and USDA reimbursements to support the meal service and assure that all children have access to nutritious meals during the school day.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act required FNS to examine and report on practices that extend credit to schoolchildren for their meals at school.  Last week, FNS published a Request for Information in the Federal Register to solicit feedback on unpaid meal charge policies nationwide.  Commenters are asked to provide details on how their state or local educational agency (LEA) addresses both the advantages and challenges of their unpaid meal charge policy. Parents are also invited to comment about how their children have been impacted by these policies, and to provide suggestions.

FNS will use the information it receives to prepare a report on the possibility of creating national standards for unpaid meal charges and to provide recommendations for implementing those standards. Information submitted to FNS will also help to develop “Best Practices” guidance to help schools create their own meal charge policies that balance access to nutritious meals and financially sustainability of foodservice programs.

In the interim, states and LEAs can take other positive steps to prevent potential issues. Schools should ensure that charges are not being applied to children who are eligible for free meals, since a child’s eligibility status can change later in the year. Eligible children may also not be receiving free meals due to perceived paperwork burden or language barriers. The recently enacted Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) allows schools in high poverty areas the option to provide free breakfasts and lunches to all their students, without their families having to fill out applications.  It’s important to note that CEP is a strictly local decision, and one that USDA encourages all local educational agencies to carefully consider.

Access to sound nutrition at school goes a long way in supporting a healthier next generation.  We look forward to hearing from school officials, parents and students about how to best address this issue.

Category/Topic: Food and Nutrition