Meals – Travel and Conferences

Whether food or meals are an allowable expense on a federally sponsored project can be a source of confusion.  Meals are ordinarily considered an entertainment cost, which are not allowable on federal awards; however, food or meals can be charged under some circumstances.

When can meals or food ordinarily be charged to a federal sponsored award?

  • When the person receiving the meal is on travel status (see exception below)
  • When the meal is integral to and a necessary part of a conference or workshop
  • Incidental items such as non-alcoholic beverages or snacks for coffee breaks may also be allowable

Ordinarily the costs for food or meals when on travel status or for conferences is explicitly included in the budget justification of the award.

When are meals not allowable on a federally sponsored award?

  • When the meal is included in conference registration fee for the person on travel status
  • When the meal is not integral or necessary part of the conference

The greatest source of confusion regarding the allowability of meals is associated with activities supporting collaborations.

Example #1: On a collaborative research award, scientists from other institutions come to Syracuse University to discuss research results. The meeting is not included in the budget justification and there is no meeting agenda. In this instance, the costs of the visiting scientists’ meals are allowable, as they are on travel status. However, the costs of meals for the SU personnel are not allowable as they are not essential to the activity.

Example #2:  A budget justification for a training program includes meetings whose participants are non-SU trainees and SU faculty. There is an agenda that includes lunch; however, the participants break for lunch and eat at Panda West. In this case, the cost of meals for trainees is allowable, but meals for SU faculty are not allowable as the meal is not essential to the event, as indicated in part by the location of the meal.

What documentation is needed to substantiate the costs of food or meals?

  • Original, itemized receipts showing detailed list of food and beverages purchased and the name(s) of participant/traveler.
    • Provision of itemized receipts demonstrates that unallowable costs (e.g., alcoholic beverages or unreasonably costly meals) are either (a) not part of the expense, or (b) will be charged to another, appropriate SU chartstring.
  • Conference registration information, if applicable, to document that the meals were not also provided by the conference.
  • In the event that an itemized receipt is unavailable, the travel reimbursement form should indicate that no alcoholic beverages were included in the expense; if alcohol was purchased, the amount should be specified and charged to another appropriate SU chartstring.
  • For conferences and workshops: invoices or receipts for food or meals should be accompanied by a list of participants’ names and affiliations, as well as the conference/workshop agenda, which makes clear the purpose of the activity.