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Reducing School Meal Certification Error through Improved Online Application Design

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FNS Document #
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Policy Memos
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PDF Icon Policy Memo (80.28 KB)
DATE: March 5, 2018
MEMO CODE: SP09-2018
SUBJECT: Reducing School Meal Certification Error through Improved Online Application Design
TO: Regional Directors
Special Nutrition Programs
All Regions
State Directors
Child Nutrition Programs
All States

A growing number of local educational agencies (LEAs) offer an online option to families applying for free or reduced price meals. LEAs understand that online applications, offered alongside traditional paper versions, have the potential to reach more families and extend program access to more eligible children. Online applications are also well-suited to improve certification accuracy. The purpose of this memo is to encourage LEAs and their software vendors to rethink online application design. By combining insights from the LEA perspective with lessons from the technology and design communities, LEAs and their software vendors can build applications that advance both user accessibility and program integrity.

USDA’s most current research finds that more than one in five applicants for school meal benefits are certified incorrectly. The same research finds that applicant error, in the form of omitted income sources and household members, is the largest driver of improper certification. These errors lead to over-certification and the mistaken denial of benefits to eligible families.

USDA strongly encourages LEAs and their software vendors to take full advantage of the interactive online environment when developing or updating their online applications. In particular, LEAs should consider designs that guide applicants step by step through the collection of household member names and their incomes, applying the same “interview” approach that underpins most tax preparation software. Developers of that software recognize that a longer series of simple questions can be easier to navigate correctly than a smaller number of complex questions that rely on the applicant’s mastery of a separate set of instructions.

One of the important messages that USDA hopes to communicate with this memo is that online applications need not, and in fact should not, mimic the look and feel of USDA’s paper prototype, or paper-based applications generally. USDA released a web-based prototype application in 2016 to illustrate a number of research-backed integrity features. Despite its departure from traditional application design, it is fully compliant with program regulations and USDA guidance. (A demo and the open source code for the application can be found on the FNS website at USDA views release of the prototype as the first step in a process of continued improvement of web-based application design – a process that LEAs and their software vendors can improve upon from here.

Ensuring accuracy in the certification of children for free and reduced price school meal benefits is a top priority of USDA, and is a shared responsibility of this agency and our state and local partners. To that end, USDA strongly encourages the adoption of integrity features like those included in the web-based prototype application. Attached to this memo is a set of questions and answers about integrity-focused online application design.

State agencies are reminded to distribute this memorandum to program operators. Program operators should direct any questions concerning this guidance to their state agency. State agencies with questions should contact the appropriate FNS regional office.

Edward Harper
Office of Program Integrity
Child Nutrition Program


Page updated: April 07, 2023

The contents of this guidance document do not have the force and effect of law and are not meant to bind the public in any way. This document is intended only to provide clarity to the public regarding existing requirements under the law or agency policies.