Program Integrity: Eligibility
The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and School Breakfast Program (SBP) play a critical role in America’s strategy to ensure that all its citizens have access to adequate food. In particular, these programs provide free and reduced-price school meals for students from low-income families. The NSLP is available in more than 99,000 public and nonprofit private schools and residential child care institutions, where more than 28 million children receive nutritionally balanced lunches each school day free or at low cost. The SBP operates in more than 72,000 schools and institutions. In FY 2002, it provided 8.2 million students with subsidized breakfasts each day. For many of these children, the food consumed at school is an important component of their overall nutritional intake.
The accuracy of the information that families provide on applications for free and reduced price school meals, the accuracy with which School Food Authorities (SFAs) classify student eligibility, and the effectiveness of procedures that Local Education Authorities (LEAs) use to approve and verify applications are key components of the integrity of the NSLP and SBP. In recent years, however, there has been evidence from auditing studies, aggregate data on participation, and other more specialized studies that a significant number of ineligible students have been approved for free and reduced-price meals, as well as evidence of the existence of other sources of payment errors (such as schools or school districts submitting improper meal counts for reimbursable meals). This evidence has raised concerns in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which administers the program, and in Congress.
Under the Improper Payments Information Act of 2002 (PL 107-300), federal agencies are required to report annually on the extent of the erroneous payments in programs which may be susceptible to significant erroneous payments and report the actions they are taking to reduce them. USDA must identify and reduce erroneous payments in various food and nutrition programs, including the NSLP and SBP. Erroneous payments under the NSLP and SBP can result from misclassification of the school meal eligibility status of participating students due to administrative errors or misreporting by households at application or at the time of verification.1 Payment errors also result when schools and school districts submit improper meal counts and claims for reimbursable meals.
To comply with this legislation, USDA needs a reliable national estimate of erroneous payments in the NSLP and SBP for SY 2005 - 2006. In addition, since it is not feasible to field a national study each year, USDA also needs reliable estimation models based on readily obtainable, extant data sources that it can use for updating erroneous payment estimates annually. The Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) has contracted with Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. (MPR) to conduct the Access, Participation, Eligibility, and Certification Study of the NSLP and SBP that will:
- Collect data related to certification accuracy, meal counting and claiming, and NSLP and SBP participation, together with related topics as appropriate, from nationally representative samples of schools and households for school year (SY) 2005-2006 and generate a national estimate of NSLP and SBP overpayment, underpayment, and overall erroneous payments
- Develop estimation models for USDA’s FNS staff to use to update the erroneous payment estimate annually with NSLP and SBP administrative records and extant data
- Examine the characteristics of households that apply for free or reduced-price meal benefits and of those denied benefits to inform issues of program participation and access
This report presents the study design. Chapter II provides an overview of the study design and identifies key design issues and MPR’s plans for addressing them. Chapter III presents the sample design and precision. Chapter IV describes data collection plans, and Chapter V describes analysis plans. Chapter VI presents the study’s schedule and schedule for deliverables.
In the rest of this chapter, we describe the school meal programs and relevant policies. We then present the definition of erroneous payments that the study will use.