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Medicaid Data Can Connect Low-Income Children to School Meals

Growing up in a family that can’t always afford an adequate diet can have lasting effects on children’s health and development.  A new federal initiative will make it easier for low-income children who receive Medicaid to get free or reduced-price meals at school automatically, with no application required.  The Agriculture Department (USDA) will offer a webinar next week about the initiative for school meal program administrators and organizations interested in children’s health and nutrition.

School districts are required to enroll school-aged children who participate in SNAP (formerly food stamps) for free school meals.  This highly successful, automated process takes advantage of SNAP’s detailed assessment of family income to connect eligible low-income children to school meals.  But until recently, states couldn’t use Medicaid enrollment data to connect low-income children to school meals in the same way. 

Expanding a project launched in 2012, USDA is now accepting applications from any state that wishes to use Medicaid data to automatically enroll children for free or reduced-price school meals.  Six states ― Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania ― and selected districts in California already use Medicaid data to enroll children for free school meals; they can now use Medicaid data to enroll children for reduced-price meals.  

Outside these six states, more than 2 million children participate in Medicaid and have incomes low enough to qualify for free school meals; nearly 2 million additional children receiving Medicaid qualify for reduced-price meals.  These children have proven to Medicaid that their families have incomes low enough to qualify for free or reduced-price meals, yet until now they couldn’t be automatically enrolled. 

To participate in the new project, state Medicaid and child nutrition programs must develop a joint data-matching plan and apply to USDA.  The federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has encouraged state Medicaid agencies to work with school meal program administrators to streamline enrollment and has clarified that they can share the necessary data with meal programs without violating federal privacy protections.

By generating the data for school meal programs, state Medicaid agencies can reduce food insecurity among low-income children, help Medicaid providers ensure that their patients are well-nourished, and help schools reduce paperwork and teach children who are better positioned to learn.

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