The Online Resource for Massachusetts Poverty Law Advocates

Back to school: Direct Certification for Free School Meals and Survey re School Meal Debt

We wanted to take this opportunity to remind you how the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) "Direct Certification" process works for students to automatically get free school meals, give you an updated list of the schools that can give universal free school meals to all, AND ask you to keep track of families who may be confronted with unpaid school meal debt.

Direct Certification for Free School Meals:

Students should automatically qualify for free school meals - without having to file a paper application for meals if - any of the following apply:

  • The child gets SNAP or TAFDC cash assistance, or lives with a child who gets SNAP or TAFDC, even if sibling is not a student.

  • The child gets MassHealth and is coded has having income under 133% FPL, or the child lives with a child getting MassHealth under 130% FPL

  • The child gets MassHealth as a result of getting SSI (additional rules may apply, contact Legal Services if denied)

  • The child is a foster care child, is homeless or a migrant family child.

Attached is a flier that describes who qualifies for free meals through Direct Certification in English and Spanish.

During August and September, all local school districts should be doing a data run with state agencies to verify a household's receipt of SNAP, TAFDC or Medicaid or confirm the child's foster status with DCF. The school's Homelessness Liaison should confirm the child's homeless status.

Helpful tips about "direct certification":

  • Any family with a student "directly certified" does not need to fill out the paper application for school meals. The family should get a letter from the school telling them they were approved.

  • Sometimes the schools have "partial matches" of the data - often because of misspelling of the child's name or a transposed the date of birth. Families whose kids appear eligible for free school meals but are not approved should check with the school to make sure they did the data matching correctly and fix any errors. 

  • Any child that got free school meals in School Year 16/17 should get free (or reduced price) meals for the first 30 calendar days of SY17/18 - to give the family and school time to sort this out.

Community Eligibility Provision:

Some schools also provide universal free meals to all student, especially if the school qualifies for the "Community Eligibility Provision" or CEP.  This means no child has to pay for breakfast or lunch. To check if your school district or school qualifies for the CEP option this school year, see the 6/8/17 Excel spreadsheet (top left page of screen) on the Massachusetts DOE webpage here: 

MLRI's School Meal Debt SURVEY:

There has been lot of news nationally and even in MA about school meal debt and "shaming" of children where the family owes the school for unpaid lunch or breakfasts.  See NYT article of April 30, 2017.  And most schools carry over meal debt from the prior school year, and demand the family pay the debt before a child starts school. 

Last school year, MLRI saw cases Massachusetts where schools demanded money from families even though the child should have received free school meals but the school messed up the Direct Cert process or delayed processing a paper application form. In one case, an 8th grader was told by the local school he could not do any extracurricular activities until his Mom paid over $200 in meal debt, even though the family received TAFDC the entire time!

MLRI is researching what the local school meal debt policies are. We would appreciate any information you can give us through this Google SURVEY. We hope to release a report in September with recommendations. 

Thanks for all you do to help low income households in Massachusetts access federal nutrition benefits ! Rest up for the big battles ahead to protect and defend SNAP, child nutrition, WIC, TEFAP and more!

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