Partner Resources

Federal Nutrition Standards for School Meals


School Meal Regulations

School meals have a significant impact on the nutritional lives of all children, especially low-income students who often eat both breakfast and lunch at school. As part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) updated the nutrition requirements for reimbursable school meals and established nutrition standards for all other foods served outside the school meals program at any time during the school day. The reimbursable meal requirements emphasize whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy products, with limits on sodium, saturated fat, trans fat, and calories. As a result of these requirements, students are eating more fruits and vegetables and many schools are seeing increases in participation.

Breakfast Meal Requirements

As part of the USDA’s school meal pattern, school nutrition directors are required to serve certain items as part of each reimbursable meal. The required meal components for breakfast include the following: 

Grades K-12

  • Fruits: One full cup of fruit (or optional vegetables)
  • Grain: Two servings of whole grains (Meat or meat alternates may be used in place of a grain, as long as one grain serving is already part of the meal)
  • Milk: One cup of milk (nonfat or low-fat unflavored milk must be offered, non-fat or low-fat flavored milk may also be offered)
  • These are daily requirements; weekly requirements vary by grade level. Additional specifications for each meal component are outlined in this chart.
Middle School aged girl pays for her school breakfast in the checkout line Starts Line

Offer vs Serve

Schools participating in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and National School Breakfast Program (NSBP) can choose to use Offer vs Serve (OVS), which allows students to choose from several food offerings to reduce food waste and increase the likelihood that students will eat what they choose. High schools are mandated to follow OVS. Under OVS, students must select a fruit or a vegetable at each meal and must take at least three items for the meal to qualify as reimbursable.

girl reaching for salad during school lunch Starts Line

Reimbursement Regulations

Schools can receive both federal and state reimbursements per meal served. Maximizing participation in breakfast programs allows schools to receive higher federal and state reimbursements. Additional revenue generated by an expanded breakfast program can help offset the cost of fixed expenses.

The USDA provides reimbursement for each complete breakfast served to students based on their eligibility for free, reduced-price, and full-price meals. These federal reimbursement rates are adjusted every July for the following school year. Schools that qualify for severe need reimbursement—meaning 40% of the school's lunches served two years prior were free or reduced-price—receive additional reimbursement.  Current school year rates can be found here.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts offers additional funding for schools that are mandated by the state to run a school breakfast program. A school is mandated to offer school breakfast if it is eligible for federal severe need reimbursement (i.e. for the prior two years, 40% or more of lunches were served to students eligible for free or reduced-price meals) AND at least 50% of students were eligible for free or reduced price meals in October of the prior year.

These schools are eligible for up to an additional $0.10 per meal for breakfast costs that exceed federal severe need reimbursement. School nutrition directors must submit documentation of breakfast costs to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) each month to receive this reimbursement. Types of allowable costs include food preparation, food service, cleanup, supervision, extension services, enrichment activities, etc.

Breakfast After the Bell Mandate

In 2020, House Bill 4218, “An Act Regarding Breakfast After the Bell,” was signed into law. It requires all schools with 60% or more students eligible for free or reduced-price meals (“mandated schools”) to implement a form of Breakfast After The Bell programming by Fall 2022. To meet the requirements, a school’s breakfast service must be held “after the beginning of the instructional day has begun” and “be accessible by all students.”

Universal Breakfast (UB) is a program that enables schools to offer breakfast to all students at no charge, regardless of household income. In Massachusetts, a state-mandated elementary school where at least 60 percent of students were eligible for free or reduced-price meals in October of the prior year may apply for UB funds from DESE at the beginning of the school year. All meals must be served as part of the school day. Meals served through the UB program are given an additional reimbursement of approximately $0.15 per meal. This money is provided in addition to the federal severe need and state-mandated reimbursements. UB funds are distributed to schools twice per year. Allowable costs for UB programs are the same as those for state-mandated schools.

Children in households that receive benefits through Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), are categorically eligible for free school meals, as are students with homeless, foster, or migrant status. Certain types of MassHealth which collect household income data can also be used to directly certify eligible children.

Direct certification simplifies the process of qualifying children for free meals. Since eligible families do not need to complete a school meal application and schools do not need to process applications for these students, direct certification saves everyone a tremendous amount of time.

Direct certification ensures that all children who are eligible for free meals—based on either their household’s participation in SNAP, TANF, MassHealth, or their homeless, foster, or migrant status—are automatically signed up to receive them. It can also be used to qualify schools to provide free meals to all students through the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP).

Some schools may be able to provide school breakfast and lunch to all students under the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP). CEP allows individual schools or entire districts to provide free meals to all students when 40 percent of enrolled students are directly certified—meaning students enrolled in SNAP, TANF, Food Distribution on Indian Reservations, or homeless, foster, or migrant students. Since CEP allows all students to receive meals without submitting applications, it reduces the administrative burden on schools and ensures that no children fall through the cracks. Additionally, it reduces the stigma around receiving free school meals, since all students are automatically eligible.

Provision 2 is another option for serving free meals to all students while reducing administrative burden. Under this provision, reimbursement is calculated using a base year within a four year cycle, meaning applications are not collected during at least three out of every four years.  A school or district receives reimbursement based upon the paid, free, and reduced fee categories within a base year and may implement for breakfast, lunch, or both. More information about Provision 2 can be found here.