Partner Resources

Nutrition Standards and Regulations 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.


Permanent Free Meals For All

School meals, including breakfast and lunch, are free of charge to all Massachusetts students attending schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program, permanently, effective as of the 2023-2024 school year. Schools will receive reimbursement at the “free” level for all meals served. For program operation details, please refer to DESE Guidance.

School Meal Regulations & Policies

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 breakfast for schools that qualify for severe need. These schools are eligible for an additional reimbursement per meal for breakfast costs that exceed federal severe need reimbursement. School Nutrition Directors must submit documentation of breakfast casts 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.

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.”

More information

Effective as of the 2023-2024, Massachusetts has adopted permanent free school meals for all. School meals will be available free of charge to all students at schools participating in the National School Lunch Program. All schools will be reimbursed for meals served under NSLP and SBP at the free rate, with the state of MA providing funding to supplement federal reimbursements.

In Massachusetts, elementary schools where at least 60 percent of students were eligible for free or reduced-price meals in October of the prior year are given an additional reimbursement per breakfast served. This money is provided in addition to the federal severe need and state severe need reimbursements. Universal Breakfast funds are distributed to schools twice per year. Allowable costs are the same as those for the state severe need reimbursement.

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 an application for free/reduced school meals, 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).

Prior to permanent free school meals in Massachusetts, the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) was the main federal program higher-need schools could adopt to serve free meals to all students. While all schools in Massachusetts that participate in the National School Lunch Program now serve free breakfast and lunch to all students, CEP remains integral, as a funding mechanism of this policy. Individual schools or entire districts are eligible for CEP when at least 25% of enrolled students are directly certified – meaning students enrolled in SNAP, TANF, Food Distribution on Indian Reservations, or homeless, foster, or migrant students. CEP allows all students to receive free meals without submitting household meal benefit applications. It also reduces the administrative burden on schools and maximizes federal reimbursements for meals served.


Provision 2 is another federal option for serving free meals to all students. 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 the provision for breakfast, lunch, or both. With free school meals now permanent in Massachusetts, Provision 2 is no longer needed for that purpose, but schools or districts not eligible for CEP may still enroll in Provision 2 in order to reduce the administrative burden of collecting household meal benefit applications every year. 

More information about Provision 2 can be found here.