School food global hub

Costa Rica has a school meal programme for all student levels, from preschoolers, primary and secondary schoolchildren to youth and adult learners. The type of food provided depends on the education cycle and the time the student spends in education, e.g., breakfast, morning supplementary meal, lunch, afternoon supplementary meal and/or dinner. Food in schools is also provided through tuck shops, which are regulated. Students are encouraged not to bring food from home so as to avoid competing with and duplicating food provided by the school meal programme. 

School Food

School meals

School food in Costa Rica consists of the school meal and nutrition programme for children and adolescents (known as PANEA, an acronym for its Spanish name, Programa de Alimentación y Nutrición del Escolar y Adolescente), which is managed by the Ministry of Education’s Department of Equity Programmes. The programme’s objective is to provide nutritious meals for all pupils (from pre-primary level up to youth and adult education) within the Costa Rican educational system, to support learning and encourage attendance. Other types of food in schools are provided by tuck shops (known as “servicios de sodas”), but fewer schools are offering this food service modality since the COVID-19 pandemic. Children are also discouraged from bringing food from home to school to avoid duplicating mealtimes with those provided as part of the meal programme. 

School menus from 2004 were updated in 2016 and implemented during 2018– 2019, with the development of three separate menu guidance manuals for preschoolers, primary and secondary school canteens, youth and adults. These manuals establish mealtimes per student age group (e.g., breakfast, morning or afternoon meal, lunch and dinner) and the respective nutritional contributions of each meal. Menus were revised in response to a number of factors, including high rates of overweight/obesity among 6 to 12 years old (34%); reported duplication of mealtimes (parents giving additional food to that provided by the school meal programme); competition with food provided in tuck shops; and an increase in food waste caused by changes in eating habits over recent years. Costa Rica also has a regulation for the operation and administration of the tuck shops in public educational centres (primary and secondary schools and adult education centres), which was developed in 2013 by the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Public Education, and updated in 2021 as a result of operational changes during COVID-19. This regulation describes the regulatory controls for tuck shop operators, as well as the type of food they can offer. 

Although there is no specific law or policy that establishes nutrition standards for school meals, all schools and adult education centres in Costa Rica must comply with the menu guidelines. This is reinforced by the 2017 Law 9425 to strengthen the school canteen programme, which highlights the importance of providing a food service to schoolchildren during the holiday period; and the 2019 Law in which school canteens are declared an essential public service, thereby protecting their operation for the most vulnerable populations. 

The main features of the menu guidance are: 

Users of the menu manuals
  • School principals 
  • Food handlers (cooks) 
  • Health and Nutrition Committees (comprising parents, teachers etc.) 
  • Supervisors of primary and secondary schools and adult education centres 
School food covered

Meals provided as part of the school meal programme

  • Offer the schoolchildren within the school meal programme, complementary food with equity criteria, and nutritional quality for the different beneficiary groups (preschoolers, schoolchildren, adolescents, youth and adults) 
  • Generate healthy eating habits among all schoolchildren 
  • Generate, through the new menu, a new system for managing and optimizing the operation of school canteens 
  • Contribute to the prevention and control of childhood obesity documented in the last school weight/height census (2016) and by other national surveys 
  • Promote the food and nutritional security of schoolchildren through access to food of guaranteed quality and safety 
BasisEnergy and macronutrients, food exchange lists [1]
Food groups coveredDairy products, fruit, vegetables, starches, legumes, semi-lean meat, fats and sugars 
Other guidance includedThey also include recommendations for food storage conditions, quality standards for food ingredient acceptance, etc. 


[1] A food exchange list is a system of determining a daily food plan based on units, or exchanges, of various food types. Each item on an exchange list can be swapped with any other food item on the same list in the portion


The School of Nutrition at the University of Costa Rica was responsible for updating the menu guidance for the school meal programme. The development process involved an initial analysis of menus through surveys of the tastes, habits and preferences of schoolchildren. Menu cycles were extended from three to five weeks to increase the variety and acceptance of meals, and mealtimes were established based on the time that the student is at school. The following general times and contributions were established: 

  • breakfast contributes 15% of the energy requirement in preschool and primary schools, and 25% in secondary schools (breakfast is provided in approximately 1,300 schools); 
  • morning and afternoon supplementary meals (known as “complemento”) contribute 20%of energy respectively; and 
  • lunch and dinner contribute 30% of energy each. 

Beneficiary groupMeal coveredSchedule
PreschoolMorning or afternoon supplementary mealMorning: 8:30-10:00 a.m.
Afternoon: 2:00-3:00 p.m.
Education I and II cycle with double shift (from 7 to 12 years)Morning or afternoon supplementary mealMorning: 9:00-10:00 a.m.
Afternoon: 2:00 – 3:00 p.m.
Education I and II with regular hours (from 7 to 12 years)Morning or afternoon supplementary meal and/or lunchMorning: 9:00 - 10:00 a.m.
Afternoon: 2:00 - 3:00 p.m.
Half Day: 11:00-1:00 p.m.
Education III cycle (from 13 to 15)LunchHalf Day: 11:00 - 1:00 p.m.
Youth and adult educationDinnerEvening: 6:00 - 7:00 p.m.


For each mealtime, the menus were calculated based on food exchange lists [1], using the original publication of the American Diabetes Association (ADA) as a reference. The following changes were also made: 

  • a review of food groups considering criteria of future national guidelines; 
  • contribution of new foods such as a carton of milk at breakfast or afternoon supplementary meals, 
  • increased intake of fruit (whole or chopped) and vegetables, as well as protein (meat, eggs and cheese); and 
  • promotion of fresh drinking water and reduction of free sugar and added sugars in drinks (natural soft drinks were eliminated from all mealtimes). 

The manuals include guidelines on a range of topics, including menu cycles; recommended cooking methods and food preparation; a recipe book; serving portions; options for contingencies and changes; special foods for events such as birthdays etc.; a seasonal calendar of fruit and vegetables, as well as lists of ingredients to buy. 

Within this update, menu manuals were also developed for indigenous populations, considering their habits, customs and the foods available to them, since Costa Rica currently has 24 indigenous territories. 


The implementation process of these manuals was progressive, from February 2018 to August 2019. Physical copies of the manuals were distributed to the different stakeholders (e.g., food service personnel; boards, directors and supervisors of educational centres; and regional directorates) and training was carried out with supervisors and directors of educational centers. 

In 2023, the National Learning Institute plans to roll out specific training with food service personnel (known as “servidoras”) that includes modules on healthy eating and food safety and a certificate on completion. Canteen personnel are key to the school meal programme since they are responsible for food procurement and preparing and serving meals. 

The Department of Equity Programmes has developed materials for school dining rooms and kitchens, such as food safety posters, as well as signs to designate the different areas of the kitchen. 

School gardens are very important within the school meal programme and there are currently 400 schools with garden projects that provide fresh produce. More human resources are required in this area since they are also useful tools for food and nutrition education, with the potential to generate positive messages on healthy eating. 

The Ministry of Education in conjunction with the Ministry of Health has prepared an operations manual and a compliance review form for regulating tuck shops, but these have not been implemented yet due to COVID-19. 

Monitoring and Evaluation

At the school level, the Health and Nutrition Committee made up of representatives from teaching staff, the parents' association, the student government and members of the community, oversee the monitoring of the school meal programme, as well as compliance with the menu guidance. Responsibility for monitoring and evaluation (from top to bottom) includes the directors of schools, education boards, supervisors, regional Directorate of Education and Directorate of Equity programmes. In case of non-compliance, each of these levels of control has access to the appropriate corrective measures or sanctions. 

In case of non-compliance with tuck shop regulations, the Ministry of Health has the power to confiscate the products. However, since it is a voluntary service and as a result of COVID-19, fewer schools are providing this additional food service. 

The Ministry of Education has identified the need for a social evaluation model that involves students in confirming the level of implementation of menus at the regional level, if it is necessary to make any modification or adaptation of the current menus, etc. This monitoring activity would be conducted by the Health and Nutrition Committee. 

Summary of nutritional guidelines or standards for the school meal programme 

School-Based Food and Nutrition Education

Relevant Links



Representantes de 10 países de América Latina y el Caribe participan, entre el 29 de agosto y el 2 de septiembre, en una misión técnica internacional organizada por el proyecto trilateral de cooperación sur-sur Consolidación de los Programas de Alimentación Escolar en ALC.