Understanding the Levels of Authority for School Food Systems

Changing systems requires understanding where decisions get made and where authority lies.

Understanding the Levels of Authority for School Food Systems

The national school food system is a complex hierarchy, with responsibilities stretching from the local campus to the U.S. Congress. Here is a partial list of typical food system responsibilities.

Federal Government

  • Sets reimbursement and income level requirements for national breakfast and lunch programs
  • Determines minimal nutrition requirements for federally supported meals
  • Creates policies for commodity foods offered to schools

State Government

  • May supplement federal reimbursements
  • Sets regulations for foods served in schools not participating in federal programs
  • Administers food stamp nutrition education fund programs in schools
  • Creates academic state-level standards and testing procedures

School Board

  • Approves district operating budget
  • Sets priorities for superintendent
  • Approves federally mandated wellness policies for local districts
  • Proposes tax measures for approval by voters

District Superintendent/Administration

  • Establishes expectations and priorities for food service, guided by federal requirements (break even, maintain surplus, and so on)
  • Recommends budget, may propose allocating additional funds to supplement food service income
  • Determines where savings achieved by food service, such as reduced trash-hauling fees, will be applied, guided by federal requirements
  • Oversees design, construction, and maintenance of kitchen facilities and resources
  • Secures additional resources, such as funding to staff garden and kitchen classes

Food Service Director

  • Creates and manages food service budget, determining how funds will be allocated among food purchases, personnel, equipment, and so on
  • Sets menus and documents adherence to required nutritional standards
  • Procures and oversees preparation of food; locates and negotiates with farmers, distributors, and vendors
  • Determines food service staff roles; oversees staff training
  • “Markets” food service to students and families


  • Sets the tone for campus regarding openness to change and spirit of cooperation
  • Determines the level of support and encouragement for faculty and staff experimentation and innovation at the school site
  • With teachers, creates class schedule (e.g., amount of time for lunch, order of lunch and recess)

Teachers and Staff (sometimes constrained by union contracts)

  • Choose whether and how to incorporate food and nutrition into classroom lessons
  • Determine how food may be used outside of meals (for instance for treats and celebrations, or as reward and punishment), within local and state requirements
  • Can model attitudes toward school food
  • Usually maintain the most direct communication with parents

This chart is adapted from Michael K. Stone, Smart by Nature: Schooling for Sustainability (Watershed Media/University of California Press, 2009).