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Implementing Direct Certification — States and School Districts Can Help Low-Income Children Get the Free School Meals for Which They Are Eligible
August 11, 2006
All children who participate in the Food Stamp Program are eligible for free meals at school. School districts and state agencies have long had the option of automatically enrolling such children for free meals through a process called "direct certification," under which they bypass the standard application process. Direct certification ensures that children most in need of food assistance -- those whose parents have sought help from the Food Stamp Program -- get the benefit of free school meals. In addition, direct certification eliminates redundant paperwork for families and schools.
This fall, a new federal requirement will start to take effect under which school districts must directly certify for free school meals all children in households that receive food stamp benefits. The requirement applies first to large school districts but will phase in to cover all districts over the next two years.
For districts that have never undertaken direct certification, the new requirement may seem daunting. Fortunately, many states and districts have been doing direct certification for years and have a wealth of experience to offer. But even in areas already conducting direct certification, many children who could be directly certified are missing out. As state and local program administrators implement the direct certification requirement, they have an opportunity to assess the effectiveness of their direct certification procedures and take steps to reach more eligible children.
This paper is written for school meals program administrators and advocates grappling with how best to implement direct certification. It discusses some of the challenges that states and school districts have confronted when implementing direct certification and identifies specific practices that could enable them to reach more eligible children. It also describes four states' direct certification systems and how they were developed; these experiences may be helpful to program administrators implementing statewide direct certification for the first time or revamping their direct certification procedures.