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Growth in free school meals; Monitoring access issues in Masachusetts

We wanted to flag for you a fairly recent story in the New York Times showing the surge in families seeking free school meals for their children:

Massachusetts is reported to have seen a 6.7% increase in free/reduced price meals since 2007 according to the interactive map link. 

In its October 2011 report on Direct Certification in free and reduced price meals, USDA data showed that MA is still at the bottom in"directly certifying" children in TAFDC and SNAP households in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) free meals.  The same data shows in the 2010 USDA report.  NOTE: This USDA data does not necessarily mean low income children are denied free meals - but it does suggest that MA School Districts are not automatically approving all MA children eligible for direct certification based on their receiving or living in a TAFDC and SNAP household.

Based on the information MLRI and Metro West Legal Services (MWLS) have collected, we have reports from families whose kids were delayed in getting onto free school meals, who were asked to fill out unnecessary applications, unnecessary verifications, and incorrectly billing of families otherwise eligible for free and reduced price meals. In two communities, Framingham and Wellesley, constables were sent out to collect unpaid school meals bills which - for some families - were not even owed!! MWLS has successfully worked in both communities to slow that down and get some of the debt collection dropped.

MLRI, MWLS and other groups are continuing to monitor what's happening to families who should receive free and reduced price meals. In the past 8 months, the Department of Early and Secondary Education (DESE) has made a number of changes that we hope will improve the terrible rate of direct certification. The state has started a pilot allowing school districts to access  "real-time" up-to-date DTA information via the Virtual Gateway. The early results in the School Districts using this new data are promising.  Last spring, we also helped the state (DTA and DESE) identify a large bucket of missing children eligible for direct certification who live with TAFDC or SNAP family members (but not on themselves).  DESE also accepted a lot of comments and revised the NSLP application forms sent to families. DCF agreed to do extensive outreach to foster families whose foster kids are eligible for direct certification. These are all very positive changes - BUT we are still seeing problems.

Here is a link to  a fact sheet for community groups. We hope this helps you identify common issues in your community.


  • Children living with TAFDC or SNAP members should be automatically approved for free meals without having to file a separate NLSP application!
  • Foster children should be automatically approved!
  • Homeless, runaway and migrant children should be automatically approved
  • Once approved, a child is eligible for the entire school year and the first 30 days of the next school year!
  • Families do not need SSNs to file a NSLP application for school meals.
  • Families are not required to provide wage stubs, tax returns or other proof of income with the NSLP application.
  • Families who receive TAFDC or SNAP benefits and fill out a NSLP application need only provide their DTA Agency ID number, not any income information.
  • School districts should process school meal NSLP applications within 10 days of receipt.



Pat Baker, MLRI; Laura Edwards, MWLS