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Online Applications Guide

A Practical Guide for Selecting an Online Application for Free or Reduced-Price School Meals

The introduction to this guide follows below. For the full report, please see the PDF.


1Why a Guide on Selecting a School Meals Online Application?

A well-designed online application can help school districts increase participation in school meal programs by simplifying the application process for district staff and families alike.  It can also streamline program operations and strengthen program integrity.

This guide is designed for school district staff and others knowledgeable about the school meal programs.  Whether a district is shopping for an online application for the first time, considering upgrading its current application, or looking for a new product to replace what it’s already using, this guide is intended to provide school districts with key information about their options. It includes practical tips, checklists, and questions to inform the decision-making process. With these tools, school districts will be better positioned to find a solution that meets the needs of their staff and families.

What is a school meals online application?

This guide focuses on choices for school districts to consider when providing a means for families to apply electronically for free or reduced-price school meals.  The “school meals online application,” or just an “online application,” will generally be available to families over the Internet through any standard web browser. School districts may also choose to make the online application accessible on a mobile device or through an app. As used in this guide, the term “online application” does not refer to a paper application that school districts post on the Internet for families to download, print, and submit by mail or fax. Instead, it refers to a set of questions that families can complete entirely online with the resulting information compiled and submitted electronically for processing as a formal application for free or reduced-price school meals. The Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) sometimes uses the term “electronic application” to refer to the same concept.

2What This Guide Will Help School Districts Do

  • Understand the benefits of a well-designed online application;
  • Identify important choices to consider before selecting or designing an online application tool;
  • Ask vendors key questions about their product offerings;
  • Consider the features to include in online applications; and
  • Solicit strong proposals.

3Benefits of an Online Application for Free or Reduced-Price School Meals

The school meal programs support children’s healthy development and help to ensure that low-income students have access to adequate nutrition.

Benefits of an Online Application for Families

Less confusion – Can automatically skip unnecessary questions, reduce need for family to read information not relevant to them, and make the application more simple and straightforward. Can offer help text as needed, including a glossary of terms, pop-up or hover text, and hyperlinks to additional information or translated materials.

More privacy – Can prevent personal information from being left in public view or passed through multiple hands at the school and district level.

More accurate results – Can prevent data entry errors (such as entering words when numbers are requested), reduce inaccuracies caused by handwriting, and make data-matching easier.

The process of applying for free or reduced-price school meals and the application itself are the gateway to these benefits. Typically school districts send home a one-page paper application, which families complete without assistance. The school or district then manually processes the paper applications, determines each student’s eligibility, and communicates the decision to families.

In contrast to many other means-tested programs, there are no eligibility workers dedicated to helping parents navigate the application form or process. Thus, it is particularly important that applications are easy to use, provide clear directions, and avoid steps that might deter eligible families from applying.

The United States Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), which oversees the school meal programs, has developed a prototype paper application. States or school districts may use the prototype, adapt it, or develop their own application that meets program rules. In many school districts across the country, families continue to use a paper application. But online applications are becoming more widely available and FNS recognizes the importance of online applications in making it easier for families to apply.[1] Eligibility for free or reduced-price school meals is relatively straightforward, making a user-friendly online application an achievable goal for states and school districts.[2] 

Benefits of an Online Application for School Districts

Less time and lower costs — Can reduce time spent entering data, scanning paper applications, and calculating income and reduce costs associated with copying and mailing applications.

More accurate and faster results – Can lessen the need to read or interpret handwriting, prevent data entry errors by staff, reduce the potential for incomplete applications requiring follow-up, and may be able to pre-populate data for renewals each year.

More integration and automation with other systems – Can integrate with school level student data, point-of-service system, meal purchasing, and other program tools.

FNS is in the process of developing a prototype online application. To inform that process, the agency hosted a challenge,[3] asking participants to transform the paper application into a simple online application that school districts can make available to families. Based on lessons learned from the challenge, the prototype will provide school districts and vendors with a model online application.

Working from examples like the prototype or an existing application, school districts can decide what they want in a school meals online application. Whether they are considering using an online application for the first time or making improvements to their current offering, carefully choosing the application’s features can help ensure all families whose children are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals can access them easily, while simultaneously reducing the administrative and resource burden on school districts and schools.  While procuring or developing an online application requires an initial investment, over time online applications may reduce staff time and other costs associated with processing paper applications.

Online Applications in Context

An online application is just one of many tools that school districts may use in the administration of school meal programs. School districts may already have information technology in place to manage direct certification, paper applications, point-of-service transactions, menu planning, meal purchasing, and/or student information systems. School districts may want to integrate an online application with these systems and/or find a single technology solution that supports more than one of these needs. For example, a school district may want to have a highly automated way of:

  • Collecting student information system data;
  • Matching student information system data against data from other programs for direct certification purposes;
  • Merging paper and online applications into a single system for staff processing;
  • Matching applications against direct certification data to avoid duplication;
  • Coordinating direct certification records with the point-of-service system to ensure that students have timely and accurate access to free and reduced-price meals; and
  • Using data from the point-of-service system about food purchases to inform menu planning and meal ordering.

Costs will be a factor that each school district will want to consider when deciding whether to adopt an online application and whether a stand-alone product or a more comprehensive system makes more sense. This guide is intended to help school districts weigh the tradeoffs involved in the choices they make and consider their online application options in the context of their other school meal program systems and needs.

The remainder of this report is available in the PDF.

End Notes

[1] Ensuring Access to Free and Reduced Price School Meals for Low-Income Students, SP 43-2016, Food and Nutrition Service, Department of Agriculture, June 30, 2016,

[2] This guide uses “school districts” or “districts” to refer to Local Educational Agencies (LEAs).

[3] Department of Agriculture. E.A.T. School Lunch UX Challenge, January 2016,