A report by Nate Frentz and Zoë Neuberger for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities outlines steps state and local National School Lunch Program administrators can take to streamline access to free or reduced-price meals for eligible children.
Under current requirements, children in households with income at or below 130 percent of the poverty line are eligible for free school meals, while those at or below 185 percent qualify for reduced-price meals.
But according to the paper, some families are unaware of the program or are dissuaded by complex forms or limited English proficiency. The prevalence of those who are eligible but do not take advantage of the program have also led to crippling debt among school districts nationwide, caused by tens of millions in unpaid school lunches over the years.
One of the report’s recommendations is to improve direct certification for children in households receiving SNAP benefits. SNAP stands for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. All school districts are required to automatically enroll these children in free meal programs, a process known as direct certification. However, more than one in five of these children are being overlooked in the national direct certification process, and in some states this statistic is more than two in five.
According to Frentz and Neuberger’s paper, this oversight can be remedied by regularly measuring the percentage of children in households receiving SNAP benefits who are being directly certified. Furthermore, the algorithm used for identifying direct certification-eligible children should be refined and routinely reassessed.
Along those lines, if one person in a household is identified as participating in SNAP, then the school district should issue eligibility for free meals to all children in the household, even if they have not been individually matched. The paper reports that some states have not revised their direct certification procedures to include this policy since it was implemented in 2009.
Another suggestion for improving access is to expand direct certification for children receiving other means-tested benefits. As is, federal law only requires districts to establish direct certification data matching for children receiving SNAP benefits. However, this stipulation could be expanded to include children participating in other means-tested public benefit programs such as Medicaid, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families cash assistance (TANF) and the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR).
The report proposes strengthening direct certification for children in foster care, as well as homeless, migrant and runaway children. Children who fall under these categories are “categorically eligible” for free school meals, which means they can qualify without providing information about family income.
Most children receive free or reduced-price school meals not through direct certification, but through the regular paper application process. But a lack of basic literacy skills and English proficiency deters many families from successfully completing the application. Thus, the paper’s authors recommend accommodating households with limited literacy and issuing forms that match the primary language of each family. Furthermore, school districts should only ask for information necessary to determine eligibility, and should reduce the potential for calculation errors by doing wage conversions themselves instead of asking households to estimate their annual income level.
Schools should also encourage eligible families to apply to the program by “using inviting language on the application materials and providing information that families need.”
Other recommendations include retaining eligible children throughout the school year by eliminating temporary approvals, and utilizing the community eligibility option.