School Nutrition Programs 

There are many federal laws and regulations which govern school nutrition programs. While families often worry about the health of the food offered at schools, research shows that school breakfasts and lunch are still typically healthier than what many children eat at home for these meals or bring in a snack lunch. Obviously this varies school to school and family to family.

There are also federal laws which insure that children with special needs including disabilities or health concerns receive appropriate nutrition in the school setting. When special diets, modified textures or support with feeding is needed, there is a process by which these can be obtained in the school setting.

The order must include:

  • The student’s disability or health issue and an explanation of why it impacts dietary needs
  • The major life activity affected by the disability
  • The food or foods to be omitted from the student’s diet and the food or choice of foods to be substituted
  • Other accommodations that may be needed (e.g. such as feeding support or specialized utensils)
  • The anticipated duration of the condition

Many schools have their own paperwork for this process. A form can also be found on the USDA website with additional guidance regarding this process and its regulation. 

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 specifies that food service program administrators must serve special meals at no extra charge to students whose disability restricts their diet (8). There is no provision for additional federal reimbursement for the added expense. However, these costs are legitimate program costs that can be paid for out of the food service account, which includes federal reimbursement for meals served for these students. If federal reimbursements are insufficient, alternative funding sources may also be available from Medicaid and special education to cover some of these costs.

Regarding allergies and food intolerances: Generally, children with food allergies or intolerances do not have a disability as defined under the USDA’s regulations and school food authorities may, but are not required to, make substitutions for them. However, when in the physician’s assessment, food allergies may result in severe, life-threatening (anaphylactic) reactions, the student’s condition would meet the definition of disability and the substitutions ordered by the physician must be made. Schools are not required to make modifications to meals due to personal opinions of the family regarding “healthful” diets.

Find Support

Are you looking for someone to talk to about your child’s eating habits?

Visit the My Child Without Limits support community and talk to fellow parents and caregivers about what worked for their children.