As a general rule, an agency may not expend appropriated funds to provide food to Government employees or other individuals as it is considered an expense personal to the individual. As such, providing food to employees and other individuals generally cannot be said to be a proper necessary expense of an agency. There may be certain circumstances, however, where, depending on the recipient and the funds to be used, the agency may expend funds to provide food. Below, we explain common situations where food may be afforded to individuals.
Food may be provided to an individual undertaking official Government business away from his or her duty station so long as the individual’s Meals and Incidentals Expenses (M&IE) credit is reduced according to the requirements of the Federal Travel Regulation. 5 U.S.C. § 5702; 41 C.F.R. §§ 301-11 and 301-18. The cost of the food provided may not exceed the M&IE credit.
The Government Employees Incentive Awards Act (GEIAA) permits agencies to “incur necessary expense[s] for the honorary recognition of” employees who, among other things, have made contributions “to the efficiency, economy, or other improvement Government operations.”
5 U.S.C. § 4503. An agency may provide food to attendees of an awards ceremony to honor employees in furtherance of an established agency employee incentive awards program if the agency determines that doing so would materially enhance the effectiveness of the awards ceremony (i.e., by conferring upon the awardees greater public recognition and thereby incentivizing the accomplishment of others). 65 Comp. Gen. 738 (1986).
However, agencies must be cautious and ensure that the primary purpose of the event at which food is served is to enhance the public recognition of award recipients’ accomplishments. While holding award receptions that coincide with other events that are more social or recreational in nature does not automatically obviate the propriety of serving food at the award reception, merely distributing awards during what is otherwise a purely social or recreational event as an artifice for serving food would be an improper use of appropriated funds. See B-247563.4 (Dec. 11, 1996). Events that combine social or recreational activities with awards receptions, therefore, are subject to greater scrutiny.
Before planning an awards ceremony, Department operating units should work with the Department’s Office of Human Resources Management or the operating unit’s servicing human resources office to ensure that the contemplated awards are consistent with established incentive awards programs.
An agency generally may pay attendance or registration fees for Government employees to attend conferences or meetings concerning matters related to the functions or activities of the agency. 5 U.S.C. § 4110. Sometimes the fee includes the cost for meals or refreshments; in other cases, a separate fee is charged for food.
If the attendance or registration fee includes the cost of food to be provided to the employee, the agency can pay the fee even if the employee is not on official travel outside of his or her duty station so long as:
(1) the cost of registration and food is a single, non-separable fee; and,
(2) the provision of food is incidental to the conference or meeting in that there are substantial functions taking place separate from when the food is served. E.g., B-233807 (Aug. 27, 1990).
Otherwise, if the fee for food is separate, the agency may pay for the cost of food only if:
(1) attendance at the meal or when refreshments are being served is necessary to obtain the full benefit of the conference or meeting (i.e., the conference or meeting is ongoing while the food is being served and consumed);
(2) employees are not free to take the meals elsewhere without missing essential conference or meeting discussions; and,
(3) the provision of food is incidental to the conference or meeting in that there are substantial functions taking place separate from when the food is served. Id.
These two exceptions, however, apply to meetings and conferences “involving matters of general interest to governmental and non-governmental participants” and do not apply to purely internal business meetings of the agency “involving the day-to-day operations of government.” Id.
An agency cannot pay for the cost of food to be provided during a meeting or conference to non-Government employees who are not on official travel orders. 31 U.S.C. § 1345. Additional discussion regarding the potential for contractors to provide food to attendees of Government-sponsored conferences through the collection of personal convenience fees can be found here: Conferences 
CULTURAL AWARENESS PROGRAMS
A cultural awareness program might be part of an agency’s Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) efforts. The agency may pay for ethnic food samples of minimal proportion if the samples will further the cultural awareness objective and are not intended as subsistence.
There are two fundamental questions to ask when considering payment for food for a cultural awareness program: (1) Is the food part of a formal program intended by the agency to advance EEO objectives and to make the audience aware of the cultural or ethnic history being celebrated? (2) Does the food constitute a meal, or is it a sample of the food of the culture offered as part of the larger program to serve an educational function? The second question requires careful consideration. The agency must ensure the food sampling serves the educational nature of the program, in contrast to a meal which serves the personal needs of employees. B-301184 (Jan. 15, 2004).
Despite the general rule that an agency cannot provide food to employees within their official duty station, the Comptroller General has recognized a non-statutory exception for emergency circumstances. Emergency circumstances are only those where the provision of food is incidental to the protection of human life or Federal property. E.g., B-188903 (July 5, 1977). Emergency circumstances do not include situations where employees are merely required to remain on duty beyond their regular working hours, even if required to remain on duty for a 24-hour period. B-185159 (Dec. 10, 1975). Further, emergency circumstances do not include situations merely involving inclement weather. E.g., 68 Comp. Gen. 46 (1988).
INTERNAL AGENCY BUSINESS MEETINGS
For meetings of agency personnel regarding purely internal agency business where the employees are not on official travel outside of their duty station, food generally may not be provided. However, if the meeting is at an outside facility, appropriated funds can be used to pay a facility rental fee that includes the provision of food but only if the cost of providing food is built into the fee, the fee is non-negotiable (i.e., it cannot be reduced by asking that food not be served), and the fee is comparable to or less expensive than the fees that would be charged by similar venues. B-281063 (Dec. 1, 1999). There must be a rational, program-related reason for choosing the venue other than the fact that providing food is built into the facility rental fee.
Food may be provided to an agency employee, even if the individual is not on travel away from his or her duty station, if the employee is participating in a training program so long as the agency determines that the provision of food is necessary for the employee to obtain the full benefit of the program (i.e., the training program is ongoing while food is being served and consumed and there are substantial functions occurring beyond just when food is being served and consumed). 5 U.S.C. § 4109; e.g., 50 Comp. Gen. 610 (1971).
USE OF GIFT & BEQUEST FUNDS
The Department has specific statutory authority to accept and retain gifts and bequests to be used to aid or facilitate the Department’s work. 15 U.S.C. § 1522. Such use may include official entertainment expenses, including food, to the extent the expenditure would aid or facilitate the Department’s work, the Department’s work could not be accomplished as effectively without the expenditure, and the expenditure is not otherwise prohibited by law. See, e.g., B-195492 (March 18, 1980); 46 Comp. Gen. 379, 382 (1966). Department Administrative Orders (DAO) 203-9 and 203-10 establish the Department’s policies on the acceptance and use of gift and bequest funds. Under DAOs 203-9, examples of the use of gift and bequest funds include: program support, official travel of employees, official entertainment, and any other activity where a mission-related necessity exists. Under DAO 203-10, examples of official entertainment expenses for which gift and bequest funds may be used include luncheons and dinners for entertaining foreign dignitaries or U.S. citizens who are involved in activities of interest to the Department, or purchasing flowers, wreaths, and similar tokens for foreign dignitaries and U.S. citizens (excluding Federal employees) according to custom.
USE OF MUTUAL EDUCATIONAL AND CULTURAL EXCHANGE ACT DONATIONS
To the extent authorized in annual appropriations acts, contributions made to the Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) and the International Trade Administration (ITA) under the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act of 1961 (MECEA), 22 U.S.C. § 2455(f), may be used for the export control and international trade activities of those operating units, respectively. Like the use of gift and bequest funds, the use of MECEA contributions may include official entertainment expenses, including food, to the extent the expenditure would further the export control or international trade missions of BIS or ITA, respectively, those missions could not be accomplished as effectively without the expenditure, and the expenditure is not otherwise prohibited by law. Like the use of gift and bequest funds, the policy provisions of DAOs 203-9 and 203-10 apply to the use of MECEA contributions.
USE OF RECEPTION AND REPRESENTATION FUNDS
Some agencies are provided limited appropriations specifically for reception and representation (R&R) entertainment expenses (including the provision of food), which may be used for official events of a ceremonial, social, and/or business purpose relating to an agency function that involves representing the agency or the United States in dealings with others in an official context. B-223678 (June 5, 1989). R&R appropriations are not available to provide food to Government employees incident to the normal day-to-day performance of their jobs, such as intra- or inter-agency business meetings. Id.; B-250884 (Mar. 18, 1993). This means, for example, that R&R appropriations may not be used for Government employee work sessions, even if occurring beyond employees’ regular working hours.
If you have questions about whether your circumstances fall within one of the above categories, please contact the General Law Division at 202‑482‑5391.