Food and Nutrition

The Minnesota charter statute does not specifically address food service. Charter schools have the same responsibilities in this area as school districts. While nothing in state law mandates that public schools must provide meals to students, in most cases it will be necessary.

This section includes information on:

  • Funding
  • Food Service Options
  • Resources

The Food and Nutrition Service at the Minnesota Department of Education administers the School Meal Programs. The programs include: the National School Lunch Program, School Breakfast Program, Special Milk Program, After School Snack Program, Food Distribution Program, Summer Food Service Program and the Minnesota Kindergarten Milk Program.

Participation in the food programs requires a substantial amount of paperwork, in terms of record keeping and regular reporting. Many of the software packages that schools use to report information include lunch programs, which can make the process much easier. MDE provides periodic training on the implementation of the School Meal Programs. Schools are strongly encouraged to attend one of these trainings well before school begins, so that a system can be set up to ensure prompt, full reimbursement. Once operating, schools should contact MDE if they have questions about operating the programs. Schools that do not implement the program properly might not receive the full amount of reimbursement to which they are entitled.

For more information about the School Meal Programs, please visit the Food and Nutrition Service website at or the U.S. Department of Agriculture website at The Food and Nutrition Service also provides periodic training on the School Meal Programs.

Charter schools that choose to participate in the School Meal Programs may receive cash subsidies (reimbursements) for each meal served. For some programs, schools receive state subsidies and USDA commodities in addition to the federal awards. In order to participate in the programs, schools must serve meals that meet federal nutritional guidelines, keep accurate records of meals served and submit monthly reimbursement claim forms during the required timeframe.

Schools will be reimbursed at some level for all reimbursable meals served, although the amount is greater for meals served to students who qualify for free and reduced meals than for those who don’t. The amount of federal subsidy depends on each student’s eligibility category. Eligibility for free or reduced meals is based on the family’s income level. Children with family incomes at or below 130% of the poverty level are eligible for free meals, and those with incomes between 130% and 185% of the poverty level are eligible for reduced price meals.

Most charter schools will have a number of students eligible for free or reduced price meals. To determine whether a student qualifies, his or her family must complete an “Application for Educational Benefits” form. This is the same form used by schools to determine eligibility for certain state and federally funded programs aimed at high risk, low income students (e.g., Title I). Families must complete this form each year their child is enrolled at the school. It is important to have completed forms on file, especially for those schools with a substantial low-income population. You may lose significant financial benefits if these forms are not on file.

Any child may purchase meals served by schools participating in the School Meal Programs. Schools may not charge students eligible for reduced price meals more than $0.40 for lunch. In the 2003-2004 school year, state breakfast reimbursements were increased to allow schools to serve breakfast at no charge to reduced eligible students and at a low price to paid eligible students.

In general, schools charge and are reimbursed for after school snacks on the same basis as other meals, although special rules apply for schools that operate in an area where at least 50% of the students are eligible for free meals.

Beginning in the second year of operation, the school will qualify for USDA commodity foods from the Food Distribution Program. In addition to school year food programs, there is also a Summer Food Service Program.

Reimbursement Rates
Although these rates change annually, as a point of reference, the combined federal and state reimbursement rates for the 2003-2004 school year are:

Breakfast Lunch Snack
Free $1.20 $2.27 $0.60
Reduced $1.20 $1.87 $0.30
Paid $0.77 $0.29 $0.05

Food Service Options 
When providing food service, a charter school has three basic options:

  1. Prepare meals on site. This gives the school complete control over the program, in exchange for greater responsibility. Unless the school has access to an institutional kitchen, however, equipment needs are likely to pose a significant barrier. Schools that prepare their own meals must have equipment certified by the National Sanitation Foundation, which is quite expensive. Schools that choose to prepare their own meals will have additional health and safety requirements and should also expect more frequent health inspections.
  2. Ask the local school district to provide food service for the school. A district that agrees to provide food service may have a minimum number of meals that they are willing to serve, or a minimum number in order to serve hot, rather than cold, meals. You will also likely be tied to the district’s schedule. Some smaller districts, particularly in rural areas where each school has a small kitchen, may be unable to provide food services.
  3. Contract with a private caterer for school meals. A private caterer might be more flexible in terms of types of meals, special preparations, special meals for field trips, schedules, etc. Most charter schools that provide meals choose this option.

IMPORTANT: Regardless of the food service option the school chooses, the school is ultimately responsible for making sure that federal and state requirements are met. For example, the school must comply with requirements regarding food storage, handling and safety. The school will also be responsible for submitting the paperwork for meal subsidies and for billing students who don’t qualify for free meals. All employees and volunteers working with the School Meal Programs should have an understanding of the following:

  • Sanitation and food safety
  • Required meal components and serving sizes
  • Counting meals by eligibility category at the point of service

When exploring food service options, consider speaking with staff at nearby charter schools and visiting other schools to watch their meal service.

Other Considerations 
During the first year, it is very difficult to break even on food service, given equipment needs. Even if someone else is preparing the food, schools will need serving areas, coolers for storage and, often, warming ovens. Schools should budget for these expenses. Free or inexpensive equipment may be available to schools through the federal surplus property program. To learn more about this program, contact the State of Minnesota Surplus Services at
(651) 639-4024.

When providing meals, schools must comply with federal nutritional guidelines for schools. These include, for example, portion sizes for different age groups and sample meal patterns. These guidelines are available on the Food and Nutrition Service website.

In addition to nutritional requirements, schools must also comply with the state health department’s requirements for sanitation and food handling. Regardless of whether the school actually prepares its own food, the staff is required to ensure proper food storage and handling. For example, a school must have a way to keep food at temperature-warm or cold. The state or local health department will inspect your facility yearly. In addition, any school that serves food must have one certified food manager on staff. To become certified, this person must take a course and an exam and register with the Department of Health. The Department of Health charges approximately $150 for the certification process. For more information about the requirements for food handling, safety and inspections, contact the Environmental Health Services Section of the MN Department of Health at (651) 215-0870. If you plan to prepare meals on site, you should contact the Plan Review Specialists at the MN Department of Health at (651) 215-0862.

Minnesota Department of Education Food and Nutrition Service 
1500 Highway 36 West
Roseville, MN 55113
(651) 582-8526 or (800) 366-8922

USDA Food and Nutrition Service

American School Food Service Association

MN School Food Service Association

Minnesota Department of Health Division of Environmental Health

For easy to understand Food Safety Fact sheets, see:

For information regarding food service construction requirements and licensure,
(651) 215-0870

As public schools, charters are eligible to obtain surplus federal property from the state for free or a nominal charge. Food service equipment may be available. To learn more about this program, contact:

State of Minnesota Surplus Services
5420 Highway 8
New Brighton, MN 55112
(651) 639-4024