Unpaid Meal Charges

Children in a Cafeteria Listening to a Presentation

Louisiana Fit Kids - Insights
Unpaid Meal Charges - What You Need to Know

The National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs provide children with nutritious meals during the school day. Louisiana school children are eligible to participate in school meals programs in a variety of ways including: the Community Eligibility Program (CEP) and the free and reduced price meals program.

Local school officials in Louisiana do their best to 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.

Unpaid meal charges represent a difficult and complex issue directly impacting the schools participating in our programs, as well as the children they serve.

Milk Keeps Me On My Toes! Bags

What is CEP?

  1. The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) is a non-pricing meal service option for schools and school districts in low-income areas. CEP allows the nation’s highest poverty schools and districts to serve breakfast and lunch at no cost to all enrolled students without collecting household applications. Schools that adopt CEP are reimbursed using a formula based on the percentage of students categorically eligible for free meals based on their participation in other specific means-tested programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).
  2. More than 90% of Louisiana schools that are eligible for CEP have adopted it.
  3. Children in households with incomes at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible for free school meals.
  4. Children in households with incomes between 130 to 185 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible for reduced-price school meals and can be charged no more than 30 cents for breakfast and 40 cents for lunch.
  5. Children in households participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations as well as foster youth, migrant, homeless, or runaway youth, and Head Start participants are “categorically eligible” for free school meals.
  6. Children from families with incomes above 185 percent of the federal poverty level may purchase a “paid meal.” Prices for paid meals are set by each school district.

Students Sitting in a Cafeteria

Certifying Children for Free/Reduced Price Meals

  1. Children can be certified for free and reduced-price school meals based on household income via a school meal application or can be certified without an application based on participation in other means-tested government programs.
  2. Every year, Louisiana School Meal Professionals work to ensure all eligible children are certified for free or reduced price meals. Sometimes, children who are not certified for free meals enter the cafeteria without the funds needed to purchase a breakfast or lunch. This is a difficult situation for the child and our staff.
  3. When a child does not have the funds needed to pay for their meal, it is a difficult situation for both the child and the school. The Louisiana Department of Education and USDA are committed to working with local officials to minimize the impact of unpaid meal charges on participating children and on their bottom line.
  4. School Meal Programs must be financially self-sustaining. They must balance the desire to provide nutritious meals for all children with the demands of not going into debt. School lunch debt impacts a program’s ability to serve all children high-quality, nutritious meals.
Two Students Eating a Healthy Breakfast

Unpaid Meal Charges: Keep'n It Local

USDA gives local school districts discretion to determine how to handle unpaid meal charges based on local conditions and available resources.
Policies ensure a consistent and transparent approach to situations where children do not have the funds needed to pay for their meal.
School Meal Programs work to prevent unpaid meal charges by:
  • improving communication with families,
  • simplifying payment options,
  • proactively reminding families to add money to their child’s account before they reach a negative balance.
No one wants to cause a child distress during the school day. Louisiana is continually working to prevent "school lunch shaming" in our cafeterias.
It is the goal of the Louisiana Department of Education Child Nutrition Program is to provide children with the well-balanced nutrition they need to be healthy and stay focused during the school day.

USDA’s Unpaid Meal Charges Resources

Unpaid Meal Charges Website
Overcoming the Unpaid Meal Challenge: Proven Strategies from Our Nation's Schools Handbook Cover Image
Overcoming the Unpaid Meal Challenge: Proven Strategies from Our Nation’s Schools Guidebook
This handbook contains sample communications with parents, a policy development checklist for school districts, and best practices for avoiding stigma.
Unpaid Meal Charges Cover Image
Unpaid Meal Charges Fact Sheet
Grilled Chicken Wrap CHOICE Cafeteria Sign and Lunch Items

2011 Louisiana Laws Revised Statutes TITLE 17 — Education

RS 17:192.1 — Meals; denial to students; procedures

If a Louisiana public school system has a policy of denying meals to children in elementary schools for nonpayment of meal fees, the school board must implement procedures relative to denying meals. Prior to denying a meal, public elementary schools are required to: a) notify the child's parent or legal guardian as to the date and time after which meals may be denied, the reason for such denial, any action needed to prevent further denial of meals, and the consequences of the failure to take appropriate actions to prevent such denial; and b) verify that the child does not have an Individual Education Plan that requires the child to receive meals provided by the school to ensure that neither the child's health nor learning ability will be negatively affected by denying the child meals during school hours.

Cafeteria Worker Preparing Small Bowls of Apples for Lunch
Photo Credit: Brady Connelly

Example Unpaid Meal Charge Policies from Louisiana Programs