Establishing Unpaid Meal Charge Policies: Best Practices to Ensure Access and Prevent Stigma
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 required USDA to examine schools’ policies related to unpaid school meal charges and determine the feasibility of national standards for such policies. After soliciting input through a Request for Comments, hosting a series of webinars, and studying the issue further, USDA determined that states and local school districts would be responsible for establishing local policies. USDA subsequently published guidance requiring school districts to have a policy and clearly communicate the policy to parents and the school community.
The goal of the School Meal Programs is to provide nutritious meals to children during the school day. Children may receive breakfast and lunch at no cost to them if they are categorically eligible for free meals or if they qualify for free meals based on Federal poverty guidelines. Sometimes, however, children who do not qualify based on these standards would like a breakfast or lunch, but do not have money in their account or in-hand to cover the cost of the meal at the time of the meal service.
USDA recognizes that unpaid meal charges represent a difficult and complex issue directly impacting the schools participating in our programs, as well as the children they serve. USDA are sensitive to the fact that local officials must balance their desire to provide for hungry children lacking the means to pay for meals with the demands of maintaining the financial viability of their school food service operation. USDA greatly appreciates the efforts of local officials working to overcome this challenge in communities nationwide.
Unpaid Meal Charge Policy Resources
USDA Unpaid Meal Charge Policy Resources
- Unpaid Meal Charge Webpage
USDA created a webpage to house all materials related to unpaid meal charge policies, including relevant guidance and archived webinar materials.
- SP 29-2017 Overcoming the Unpaid Meal Challenge: Proven Strategies from Our Nation’s Schools
This handbook contains sample communications with parents, a policy development checklist for school districts, and best practices for avoiding stigma.
- SP 23-2017 Unpaid Meal Charges Guidance and Q&A
This Q&A reviews the requirements for school districts to establish and communicate a meal charge policy.
- SP 47-2016 Unpaid Meal Charges
Clarification on Collection of Delinquent Meal Payments
- SP 46-2016 Unpaid Meal Charges
Local Meal Charge Policies