Washington DC, May 4, 2015 – Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services Under Secretary Kevin Concannon today announced the results of a nationwide assessment of improper payments in school meals programs, as well as several steps to sustain progress by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in reducing errors and improving school meal program integrity. Schools are responsible for ensuring that school meal programs operate according to federal requirements. Today’s announcement will provide $8.5 million in grants to improve schools’ operational and oversight efforts in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs. In addition, a new rule is being proposed to help states better target resources to districts at highest risk of improper payments. Combined, these efforts will decrease administrative errors and waste while streamlining the certification process so children can get access to the nutrition they need to learn and thrive.
“Reducing errors in our school meal programs is a top priority for USDA,” said Concannon. “The data show that we are moving in the right direction, and the efforts announced today will help schools continue to reduce errors in the school meal programs. By focusing on program efficiencies, we protect taxpayer dollars and ensure the school meal programs remain available to the millions of children who rely on them.”
In order to ensure proper stewardship of these vital programs, USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service developed a study series titled Access, Participation, Eligibility and Certification (APEC) to collect nationally-representative data from schools and school food authorities every five years. This study estimates improper payment rates and amounts in three key areas: aggregation, certification, and meal claiming errors.
- Aggregation errors occur when a school undercounts or over counts the number of meals that are eligible for reimbursement.
- Certification errors occur when a child is placed into the wrong meal reimbursement category, such as when a child who is eligible for reduced priced meals is certified for free meals, or when a child who is eligible for free meals is denied.
- Meal claiming errors occur when a meal is categorized incorrectly as reimbursable or non-reimbursable at the point-of-sale in the cafeteria. These errors typically involve a required item, such as a milk or fruit being left off of a tray by the student.
Today, USDA is releasing the second iteration of that study, which shows that while the overall level of program error remains unacceptably high, there have been notable areas of improvement. The overall error rate has been reduced, with significant declines in the frequency of aggregation errors – from 3.8 percent to 0.8 percent in the National School Lunch Program and from 6.0 percent to 1.2 percent in the School Breakfast Program.
The $8.5 million in grants are a continuation of USDA’s efforts to ensure proper and efficient administration of its child nutrition programs. Four million dollars will be targeted toward states’ work to improve the integrity and efficiency of school meals administration through development and implementation of administrative review and training tools and strategies, including technology solutions. Another $4.5 million will go toward increasing the use of direct certification, the process of using income data already verified from SNAP applications to certify children in those households for free meals without requiring a second application. Findings from this new study demonstrate that direct certifications are substantially more accurate than certifications based on paper applications.
Other ongoing USDA initiatives aimed at future long-term reduction in program error include:
- Implementation of the Community Eligibility Provision, which allows high-poverty school and districts to provide free meals to all students without needing to collect applications, certify individual students, or manage student payment accounts;
- A redesigned administrative review process, adopted by most state agencies in school year 2013-2014;
- Implementation of new professional standards for school foodservice personnel effective for school year 2015-2016;
- Release of an updated prototype school meals application in 2015 developed jointly by USDA and the Office of Personnel Management’s Innovation Lab;
- New research on household application errors; and
- The establishment of a new Office of Program Integrity to lead the development of future data and evidence-driven reforms.
One of the many tools the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 provided USDA to help address improper payments in the school meal programs was an update to the administrative review process used by state agencies to monitor local school meal service. A proposed rule implementing this provision, also announced today, includes risk-based approaches to enable states to target error prone areas and schools needing the most compliance assistance. The proposed rule also includes a number of recommendations such as off-site monitoring approaches that will result in more agility, and greater ability to use state staff efficiently.
“The updated procedures are meant to give states more tailored ability to conduct reviews, allow for the efficient use of limited time and staff, and result in more robust and transparent monitoring of school nutrition programs,” said Concannon. “Through this combination of financial support for schools, rule-making, and promoting the use of direct certification and the community eligibility provision, USDA is committed to continuing our progress in reducing the rate of improper payments in our school nutrition programs.”
The comment period for the proposed rule is open for 60 days after date of publication in the Federal Register. Feedback from state agencies, school food authorities, and other interested parties is an important part of the rulemaking process. To view the proposed rule online and submit comments, visit http://www.fns.usda.gov/school-meals/federal-register-documents.
All state agencies interested in applying for the grants announced today can visit http://www.fns.usda.gov/grant-opportunities.
USDA's Food and Nutrition Service administers America’s nutrition assistance programs including the National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs, the Child and Adult Care Food Program, the Summer Food Service Program, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). Together these programs make up the federal nutrition safety net.