U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service
Under these programs, millions of American students receive a free or reduced-price lunch and/or breakfast every school day.
Concerns about program integrity led to studies in the past decade to determine whether many students in the program were in fact ineligible for benefits. School Food Authorities verify eligibility by requiring documentation of income or receipt of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits or cash assistance from a small sample of households. This process may identify errors in each district but does not provide data on the accuracy of benefit determination nationwide.
This study is evaluating the accuracy of the school meals application verification process by updating and expanding on work Mathematica completed in 2004. The research team is conducting in-depth case studies with a sample of 20 school districts of varying sizes and characteristics. Data collection includes a survey of approximately 1,500 households, district interviews, and analyses of school district records.
Research questions include the following:
- What were the income levels of households that were initially approved on the basis of income provided on an application, selected for verification, and did not respond to requests for income documentation?
- What were the income levels of households that were initially approved on the basis of income, selected for verification, and had benefit levels unchanged as a result of the verification process?
- What reasons prompted applications to be selected for verification for cause?
- How many households reapply after they are denied benefits due to non-response or because their documentation did not support their claim for eligibility?
Evidence & Insights From This Project
Case Study of National School Lunch Program Verification Outcomes in Large Metropolitan School Districts
Recent media attention has suggested that some children who are certified as eligible for free school lunch may in fact be ineligible because their family income is too high. This report presents the result of a case study of the process used to identify and detect these types of errors, indicating that the verification process itself is subject to errors. Among students approved for benefits on the basis of income reported on the application and whose benefits were terminated because the family did not respond to the district’s verification request, half were income eligible for at least the benefit amount they had been receiving. About a third of households whose benefits were unchanged as a result of verification were not income eligible for their benefit level two to three months after completing verification.Learn More