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School Nutrition Programs in California

The United States Department of Agriculture provides more than two billion dollars in funding annually to the State of California in support of five separate school meal programs.  These programs directly assist California schools and districts by subsidizing the costs of providing nutritious meals and milk to children in need. The five programs are: the National School Lunch Program, School Breakfast Program, Seamless Summer Feeding Option, Special Milk Program, and State Meal Program. 

California also kicks in another 150 million dollars annually and has the legal responsibility of administering the programs.  Local schools and school districts have the responsibility to provide the meals, of course, but must also collect and verify family income information to determine program eligibility.  This is done by sending application forms to the student’s families at the start of each school year and by accessing a database of students already identified as eligible (called the “Direct Certification” list) - which is updated monthly in the state data system known as ‘CALPADS’. 

Schools update their local student information systems with the list of students who are eligible to receive free or reduced meals based upon the receipt of returned application forms from parents, or from the online “direct certification” list.  Schools must also document each lunch transaction and report information on a monthly basis to the California Department of Education via an online web program called CNIPS.  Annual reporting is also done through CALPADS. 

Though the average meal reimbursement is around $3, that fee may only cover the actual cost of the food.  It does not, necessarily, cover the additional ancillary costs of food storage, prep, transportation, refrigeration, and clean up.  Nor does it cover the cost of staff to enter the daily meal transactions, process payments, or extract data from internal systems to upload to the CNIPS website.   As a result, most schools operate their lunch programs at a net LOSS to the organization. 

In fact, for every dollar that a school receives as reimbursement for the actual food costs, schools typically incur another dollar in overhead expenses to cover program administration costs.  And this usually hits schools with high populations of students in need, and may ironically deprive them of instructional resources as the school diverts scarce funds away from science kits, computers, or staff development in order to continue to operate the meal programs.

In order to qualify for these programs, you must be a resident of the state of California and a parent or primary caregiver responsible for a child or children who attends school (high school or under).   Additionally, you must have an annual household income (before taxes) that is below the following amounts.  Note - these levels are indexed annually and thus change each year.  Consult the CDE website for the most up-to-date eligibility cut-off amounts:

Household Size* Maximum Annual Income (reduced) Maximum Annual Income (free)
2 $29,637 $20,826
3 $37,296 $26,208
4 $44,955 $31,590
5 $52,614 $36,972
6 $60,273 $42,354
7 $67,950 $47,749
8 $75,646 $53,157

*For households with more than eight people, add  $7,696 per additional person.   Household size includes at least one parent/guardian and at least one child.  A household with two parents and two children would total a household size of four.

Program Contact Information
You can learn more about the California School Nutrition Programs by visiting the CDE School Nutrition website at: