CONTACT:  Michele Clark
Communications Coordinator
573-751-3469

Vol.  45, No. 14                      

Feb.  17, 2011

                        

Grant Aims to Help More Needy Children Get Free Lunches

Missouri education officials want to bolster the statewide system that identifies children eligible to receive free meals through the National School Lunch Program.

A $70,189 planning grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Services division has been awarded to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.  The funds will help Missouri develop a plan to improve the state’s direct certification process for children receiving benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistant Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). 

Education and social services officials seek to make the process more efficient and responsive to ensure that eligible students receive the benefit at the cafeteria line sooner.  Over the past five years, the percentage of Missouri students eligible for free and reduced-price lunches has grown by 6 percent.  More than half of the jump occurred between the 2008-09 and 2009-10 school years, rising from 43.7 to 46.9 percent.

The current process for direct certification is cumbersome and less than efficient, state education officials said.  Currently, less than half of the school-age SNAP-participating children are automatically certified; the national average is 72 percent. Students identified through direct certification are eligible to receive free lunches for the duration of the school year. Direct certification covers all children residing within a household, and few parents refuse services.

Karen Wooton, state coordinator for School Food Services, said Missouri’s goal is to meet or beat the national average within three years of putting the plan into action. 

“The Department is committed to improving significantly the proportion of eligible students we can direct certify,” Wooton said. “We are examining the states that have the highest rates of direct certification, and their best practices will be a guide to Missouri’s proposed plan.”

Currently, the direct certification process for the National School Lunch program is done once a year through an arrangement between the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Department of Social Services.  The outdated system is prone to miss students who become eligible during the school year.

Wooton is leading the project team that includes staff members from the two state agencies and representative school districts.  Information technology specialists also will be involved to discuss the feasibility of any models considered. She said the planning process will include a gap analysis and an examination of best practices and data systems that will address frequency and strengthening a centralized matching process. The team aims to submit its plan to the USDA by July 29 as part of an implementation grant application.

Even with an improved direct certification process, Wooton said each school district is encouraged to distribute free and reduced-price lunch applications at regular intervals throughout the year because the direct certification process does not apply to all students who may be eligible for free meals.