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THE STATE EDUCATION DEPARTMENT / THE UNIVERSITY OF THE STATE OF NEW YORK / ALBANY, NY 12234

Office for Prekindergarten through Grade 12 Education
Child Nutrition Program Administration
89 Washington Avenue, Room 375 EBA, Albany, NY 12234
Phone: (518) 473-8781 Fax: (518) 473-0018

To: 
School Food Authorities
From: 
Paula Tyner-Doyle, Coordinator
Date: 
Tuesday, May 30, 2017
Subject: 
Student Meal Charge Policy

Beginning with school year 2017-2018, School Food Authorities (SFAs) in New York State are required to have a written and clearly communicated policy to address student meal charges when payment cannot be collected at the point of service.  Charge policies should be reasonable, well-defined and maintain the integrity and dignity of students and households to minimize harm to the student.  Recent media attention has also reinforced the need for meal policies to explicitly prohibit ostracizing or “lunch shaming” which negatively impact students’ social, physical and emotional health and well-being, which in turn may result in negative educational and health outcomes. 

Policies may apply consistently for all age/grade groups, or may vary by elementary, middle and high school.  While the USDA Child Nutrition Program regulations do not require that a paid student be served a meal without payment, the School must provide a student meal charge policy to those students in the event they forget or lose their lunch money.  The meal charge policy must include the following provisions:

  • Grace Period - students who use prepaid meal cards or accounts (i.e. MySchoolBucks, PayPams, etc.) are given a grace period during which students are allowed to charge meals after their prepaid funds have been exhausted.

  • Notification - the SFA must notify the student’s parent or guardian that the student’s meal card or account balance is exhausted and unpaid meal charges are due.  The notification may include a repayment schedule, but cannot charge any interest or fees in connection with meals charged during the grace period.

It should be noted that charging of items outside of the reimbursable meals (i.e., a la carte items, adult meals, etc.) is expressly prohibited.

Outstanding Student Charges

Outstanding student charges (also called delinquent debt) resulting from nonpayment for school meals is not an allowable cost to the nonprofit school food service account and cannot be absorbed by the School Nutrition Program at the end of the school year or carried forward to the next school year. If the SFA allows students to accumulate charges and those charges are not paid (i.e. parents do not put money into a child’s account), the school must subsidize the nonprofit school food service account for all unpaid meals by June 30th.  The subsidy must be from the general or other non-federal source.  Documentation must be maintained to substantiate a transfer using other than federal funds of the equivalent of all unpaid meal debt to the school food service account each year.

Ensuring Access to School Meals for Eligible Children

Improving eligibility certification rates for children eligible for free and reduced price meals can reduce unpaid meal charges incurred by low-income families unable to pay for school meals.   Unpaid meal charges may suggest that a family is facing a financial setback, and coordinating with support service personnel may help ensure policies are sensitive to children’s needs during a potentially challenging time.  Strategies include: 

  • Maximizing the use of Statewide Direct Certification (DCMP).  Beginning in the 2017-18 school year, schools will have access to monthly DCMP data.  LEAs may consider the effective date of eligibility for free school meals benefits to be the date of the automated data matching file which first identifies the child as eligible.  See SP51-2014:  Eligibility Effective Date for Directly Certified Students for more details.
  • Improving the application process.  Encourage families to apply for free and reduced price meals and provide materials in a language and at a reading level families can understand.   LEAs may establish the date of an application’s submission as the effective date of eligibility.  See SP11-2014:  Effective Date of Free or Reduced Price Meal Eligibility Determinations for more details.
  • At the discretion of the SFA, non-profit school food service account (NSFSA) funds may be used to lower or eliminate the reduced price meal cost to the student.  SFAs choosing to provide reduced price meals at no charge should communicate to families and include this information in the Student Meal Charge Policy.
  • Students transferring from a Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) or Provision 2 (P2) participating school to a non-participating school must be provided 30 days free eligibility or until a new eligibility determination is made, whichever comes first.
  • SFAs should accept the free and reduced price eligibility from transfer students.
  • SFAs must provide 30 day carryover of eligibility for free and reduced price students from the previous school year during the first 30 operating days of a new school year, or until a new eligibility determination is made, whichever is first.
  • SFAs should maximize the use of CEP and P2 where appropriate. 

Preventing Student Distress

We understand SFAs often feel the financial constraints of outstanding student charges, in addition to providing healthy, nutritious meals.  Alternate meals referenced below are often offered to students who have incurred three or more meal charges.  While this practice is legally acceptable, we strongly encourage SFAs to avoid making children feel ostracized by the practice.  The effects of ostracizing or “lunch shaming” negatively impact students’ social, physical and emotional health and well-being, which in turn may result in negative educational and health outcomes.

Some suggestions for preventing student distress include:

  • Communicate discreetly – SFAs must instruct and direct food service staff not to notify children of their charge debt in front of other students. 
  • Move the Point of Service – SFAs may move the point of service to the beginning of the lunch line.  This helps the cashier determine which children, if any, are unable to pay for their meal, and allows the cashier to address the issue discreetly before the child has chosen a meal.  If the point of service is moved to the beginning of the line, the SFA must ensure that each student has received a meal that meets all requirements for reimbursement.

The chart below provides preferred alternatives to actions that single out children with unpaid meal charges or low account balances. The actions are consistent with the disclosure provisions in Federal regulations.

Prohibited Actions

Required Actions

Announcing or publicizing the names of children with unpaid meal charges.

Communicating privately with individual families about their child’s outstanding balance.

Requiring children with unpaid meal charges to use a different serving line to pick up an alternate meal.

Serving children with unpaid meal charges the regular reimbursable meal or a reimbursable alternate meal in the same serving line

Using hand stamps, stickers, or other physical markers to identify children with meal charge debt.

Communicating payment reminders directly to adults in the family over the phone or via email (robocalls, MySchoolBucks, PayPams, etc.).

Sending clearly marked notices home with children who have an outstanding balance.

Sending discrete reminders in a plain, white envelope, or sending reminders with other communication materials sent to all families.

Enlisting volunteers, especially the parents or guardians of other students, to request payment from a family with unpaid meal charges.

Allowing only appropriate officials trained on USDA’s confidentiality requirements who have a need to access a child’s account balance or eligibility information to request payment from families with unpaid meal charges.

Suggesting or requiring children with unpaid meal charges to work for a meal or to pay back their debt.

Working with families to develop a payment plan to pay back meal charge debt.

Throwing a child’s meal in the trash if they are unable to pay.

Serving children who are unable to pay the regular reimbursable meal or a reimbursable alternate meal.

Serving unappealing alternate meals with low nutritional value as a strategy to embarrass children with unpaid meal debt.

Ensuring the alternate meal (if opting to provide one) is a healthy meal and is available as a regular alternate available to all children.

Alternate Meals

USDA encourages SFAs to provide regular, reimbursable meals to all children who want one.  Many school food professionals choose to provide all participating children, including those with unpaid meal charges, a regular reimbursable meal.  Providing a reimbursable meal prevents the embarrassment of children with unpaid meal charges and ensures schools receive some funding for the meal in the form of a Federal and State reimbursement at the reduced price or paid rate.  If a child participating at the paid rate did not have money to pay for lunch, the school would still receive cash and in-kind (USDA Foods) assistance for serving the child a reimbursable lunch.

SFAs opting to provide alternate meals to children unable to pay for a meal must include information about alternate meals in their local meal charge policy.  While this practice is legally acceptable, we strongly encourage SFAs to provide a reimbursable meal to children who want one.  USDA recommends explaining:

  • The meal(s) during which alternate meals are offered (i.e., Breakfast, Lunch);
  • The number of alternate meals;
  • The cost of the alternate meal must be added to the child’s delinquent account;
  • When alternate meals will be offered (i.e., immediately in lieu of charging, or after a child’s negative balance dips to a certain level).

NYSED has developed a sample meal charge policy that can be accessed using the hyper-link below entitled:  ‘NYSED Sample Meal Charge Policy.’  It should be noted that NYS is not setting a universal standard for the handling of student meal charges.  Each SFA in NYS should develop a policy that meets the individual needs of the schools under its jurisdiction and that can be communicated and implemented consistently.

For additional guidance, refer to USDA’s web page “School Meals – Unpaid Meal Charges” at https://www.fns.usda.gov/school-meals/unpaid-meal-charges

Guidance

Unpaid Meal Charges Policy Guidance

  • SP 23-2017: Unpaid Meal Charges: Guidance and Q&A
  • SP 47-2016: Unpaid Meal Charges: Clarification on Collection of Delinquent Meal Payments
  • SP 46-2016: Unpaid Meal Charges: Local Meal Charge Policies

Other Relevant Policy Guidance

  • SP 51-2016: Ensuring Year-long Eligibility in the School Lunch and Breakfast Programs
  • SP 43-2016: Ensuring Access to Free and Reduced Price School Meals for Low-Income Students
  • SP 37-2016: Meaningful Access for Persons With Limited English Proficiency (LEP) in the School Meal Programs: Guidance and Q&As
  • SP 51-2014: Eligibility Effective Date for Directly Certified Students
  • SP 17-2014: Discretionary Elimination of Reduced Price Charges in the School Meal Programs
  • SP 11 CACFP 06 SFSP 11-2011: Effective Date of Free or Reduced Price Meal Eligibility Determinations
  • FNS Instruction 113-1: Civil Rights Compliance and Enforcement – Nutrition Programs and Activities

Handbooks and Guides

Presentations

Letter: USDA-FNS Undersecretary to Chief State School Offices - Unpaid Meal Charges

Useful Links

Alternative Counting and Claiming Options

Limited English Proficiency

NYSED Sample Meal Charge Policy

USDA Nondiscrimination Statement

In accordance with Federal civil rights law and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) civil rights regulations and policies, the USDA, its Agencies, offices, and employees, and institutions participating in or administering USDA programs are prohibited from discriminating based on race, color, national origin, sex, disability, age, or reprisal or retaliation for prior civil rights activity in any program or activity conducted or funded by USDA. 

Persons with disabilities who require alternative means of communication for program information (e.g. Braille, large print, audiotape, American Sign Language, etc.), should contact the Agency (State or local) where they applied for benefits. Individuals who are deaf, hard of hearing or have speech disabilities may contact USDA through the Federal Relay Service at (800) 877-8339.  Additionally, program information may be made available in languages other than English.

To file a program complaint of discrimination, complete the USDA Program Discrimination Complaint Form, (AD-3027) found online at: http://www.ascr.usda.gov/complaint_filing_cust.html, and at any USDA office, or write a letter addressed to USDA and provide in the letter all of the information requested in the form. To request a copy of the complaint form, call (866) 632-9992. Submit your completed form or letter to USDA by:

(1)     mail: U.S. Department of Agriculture
         Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights
         1400 Independence Avenue, SW
         Washington, D.C. 20250-9410;

(2)     fax: (202) 690-7442; or

(3)     email: program.intake@usda.gov.

This institution is an equal opportunity provider.

Los demás programas de asistencia nutricional del FNS, las agencias estatales y locales, y sus beneficiarios secundarios, deben publicar el siguiente Aviso de No Discriminación:

De conformidad con la Ley Federal de Derechos Civiles y los reglamentos y políticas de derechos civiles del Departamento de Agricultura de los EE. UU. (USDA, por sus siglas en ingles), se prohíbe que el USDA, sus agencias, oficinas, empleados e instituciones que participan o administran programas del USDA discriminen sobre la base de raza, color, nacionalidad, sexo, discapacidad, edad, o en represalia o venganza por actividades previas de derechos civiles en algún programa o actividad realizados o financiados por el USDA.

Las personas con discapacidades que necesiten medios alternativos para la comunicación de la información del programa (por ejemplo, sistema Braille, letras grandes, cintas de audio, lenguaje de seas americano, etc.), deben ponerse en contacto con la agencia (estatal o local) en la que solicitaron los beneficios. Las personas sordas, con dificultades de audición o discapacidades del habla pueden comunicarse con el USDA por medio del Federal Relay Service [Servicio Federal de Retransmisión] al (800) 877-8339. Además, la información del programa se puede proporcionar en otros idiomas.

Para presentar una denuncia de discriminación, complete el Formulario de Denuncia de Discriminación del Programa del USDA, (AD-3027) que está disponible en linea en:http://www.ocio.usda.gov/sites/default/files/docs/2012/Spanish_Form_508_Compliant_6_8_12_0.pdf. y en cualquier oficina del USDA, o bien escriba una carta dirigida al USDA e incluya en la carta toda la información solicitada en el formulario. Para solicitar una copia del formulario de denuncia, llame al (866) 632-9992. Haga llegar su formulario lleno o carta al USDA por:

(1)     correo: U.S. Department of Agriculture
         Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights
         1400 Independence Avenue, SW
         Washington, D.C. 20250-9410;

(2)     fax: (202) 690-7442; o

(3)     correo electrónicoprogram.intake@usda.gov.

Esta institución es un proveedor que ofrece igualdad de oportunidades.

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