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Policy Update: Free/Reduced Price School Meals in Massachusetts!

As kids head back to school, we wanted to share a few important factoids about the National School Lunch Program (NLSP) that may help more families get free and reduced-price school meals. Free/reduced-price meals are available to low income children enrolled in a public, charter, parochial or private school that serve meals and participate in the NSLP. The Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 made some important improvements to the NSLP that will help qualify more children for free and reduced meals. MLRI and Project Bread have been working over the summer with the Department of Early and Secondary Education (DESE), the Department of Children and Families (DCF) and Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA) to identify barriers and find ways improve enrollment in the NSLP program for Massachusetts children. DESE has also been working with school districts to pilot an on-line technology to improve "direct certification" of TAFDC and SNAP kids.

Here's some thinks you should know. Most importantly, please tell us how it is going in your school districts and if you hear of kids NOT getting free meals who should!

SNAP or TAFDC Households and Free Meals:

  • Children are eligible for free school meals if they either receive TAFDC or SNAP, or they live with a family member who receives SNAP or TAFDC. These non-recipient children are “categorically eligible” for free school meals. This is true even if income exceeds 130% FPL, and is true for immigrant or other children who may not qualify for SNAP or TAFDC but live with persons who do. Non-recipient children are now included in the DTA data that DESE is shipping to local school districts.
  • Children in SNAP or TAFDC households should be “directly certified” by the school district for free school meals. "Directly certified" means the school automatically approves free meals and family does NOT have to file a paper school meals application. Families should get a notice from the school telling them their kids are approved for free meals and, if so, do not need to do anything more.
  • To be on the safe side, any family that does not get promptly notified by the school should fill out the school meals application form and check off their SNAP or TAFDC status. (Many school districts have failed to uniformly or timely complete the direct certification in past years.) All schools should have sent home a paper application form in August to most families whose kids live in that school district. See link to sample NSLP form below. DTA has also agreed to send NSLP informational fliers to every TAFDC household and is sending NSLP fliers with every SNAP notice sent for the next few months.
  • The NSLP application form no longer asks for the full SSN. Any SNAP or TAFDC household who fills out the form should try to include their DTA “Agency ID” on the form. (The DTA “Agency ID” is now appearing on the upper right hand side of all DTA notices to clients, instead of the SSN.) If the family gets TAFDC or SNAP but has trouble getting the Agency ID number, they should fill out the rest of the form anyway and send it in.
  • Any child who is approved to receive free or reduced-price meals remains on the program for the full school year – even if changes in family income or they stop getting TAFDC or SNAP.
  • Families with gross income under 200% FPL should be encouraged to apply for SNAP to get free meals! Remember, the NSLP program puts families on "reduced-price" meals if gross income between 130% and 185% FPL - and the family make a co-payment on each meal. BUT, if the family is approved as a SNAP household (including “categorically eligible” minimum benefit and zero benefit households), the kids get free meals with no co-payment. The SNAP gross income test for families with kids in MA is 200% FPL. A SNAP family is also not subject to income verification requirements by the school district. 

Foster Children and Free Meals:

  • All foster children can now receive free school meals regardless of personal or family income. Foster kids are also “categorically eligible” for free meals. Foster families that receive a letter from the local school saying the foster child is enrolled for free school meals do not need to do anything more. When DCF notifies a school district about the placement of a foster child, the foster child is automatically eligible for free meals with no further application.
  • To be on the safe side, or if a child arrives in the foster home before DCF communicates with the school, foster families should fill out the NSLP application and check off the foster care box for any foster child in the home. No additional documentation of foster care is needed. DCF has also sent a NSLP brochure developed by Project Bread to every foster care family in MA.
  • All foster children can now receive free school meals regardless of personal or family income. Foster kids are also “categorically eligible” for free meals. Foster families that receive a letter from the local school saying the foster child is enrolled for free school meals do not need to do anything more. When DCF notifies a school district about the placement of a foster child, the foster child is automatically eligible for free meals with no further application. If the child arrives in the foster home before DCF communicates with the school, foster families should fill out the NSLP application and check off the foster care box for any foster child in the home. No additional documentation of foster care is needed.
  • Families with both foster children and their own children can include all the children on the same school meals application if they attend school in the same school district. Doing so will make the application process easier and may enable the children to become eligible for free or reduced-price meals by increasing the household size under the NSLP financial rules.
  • Just like SNAP or TAFDC eligible households, any child (foster or non-foster) who is approved to receive free or reduced-price meals remains approved for the entire school year. This is true for foster children even if they return to their birth family or move to another foster home in the school district. It is also true for your own children, even if a foster child leaves your home or your income changes.

RESOURCES: 

Here’s a link to the NSLP paper application which a family can print and fill out: http://www.doe.mass.edu/cnp/free_red/eligibiltypacket.pdf An on-line application process for free meals is also available through the Virtual Gateway for kids in certain school districts. DESE is working on revisions to this on-line app. 

Here’s the MLRI fact sheet for child welfare advocates on the important changes to the school meal program for foster children. http://www.masslegalservices.org/node/38845 and a link to a very useful policy memo on foster children and school meals from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities: https://www.cbpp.org/research/six-ways-that-states-and-school-districts-can-make-it-easier-for-children-in-foster-care-to

For more information on the National School Lunch and Breakfasts programs and other advocacy materials, go to the Food Research Action Center website: http://frac.org/programs

PROBLEMS?

In October of 2010, USDA reported that Massachusetts had one of the worst rates of "direct certification" of children in the NSLP in the U.S. We are working hard to turn that around. As noted, DESE and local school districts are now piloting use of Virtual Gateway for school districts to check on SNAP and TAFDC eligibility of families. DESE has made changes to the NSLP application form to help families understand the requirements. DTA has added in the non-recipient children living with SNAP recipients to the data shared and is sending NSLP fliers to all TAFDC families and most SNAP households. DCF is working with its staff to help school districts directly certify foster kids.

We need to hear how this is going. Please let MLRI know if there are any TAFDC, SNAP or foster care families whose kids should have been "directly certified" by the schools but were not, or who were put on reduced-price meals. Let us know if schools are delaying processing or are erroneously billing families for meals. Contact me, Pat Baker pbaker@mlri.org, or our new AmeriCorps Attorney, Helene Newberg, after Sept 12th: hnewberg@mlri.org