Policy is the one thing that’s never constant. Each July, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food and Nutrition Services, Child Nutrition Programs division updates its policy regarding student eligibility. This post covers the updated Eligibility Manual for School Meals Determining and Verifying Eligibility, released on July 18, 2017. 

Read on to find a categorical breakdown of some high points to keep in mind from this year’s manual, as well as a link of the new USDA release that has all changes made from the previous to current year highlighted.

Q&A Sections Have Been Added

Perhaps the most exciting part of this year’s Eligibility Manual is the addition of a Q&A sections within which USDA addresses frequently asked questions for topics covered throughout the manual.

At the end of each major topic, you can now easily navigate through frequently asked questions on respective programs, and receive more specific breakdowns to help you tackle any challenges you may face. Even if you’re already aware of the major changes in eligibility for the school year, browsing though respective Q&A sections may still prove enlightening.

Most notably, within these sections you will find clarification on topics like claims for families with non-foster children, foster student eligibility, and housing and household eligibility questions that tend to fall within gray areas.

Addressing Accessibility and Discrimination in Cafeterias

There are numerous changes that may be easy to discount during a brief skim, namely those present throughout the manual that all have the common theme of increasing participation and accessibility.

Accessibility for students with disabilities received an added paragraph as a reminder with the USDA regulation Non Discrimination on the Basis of Handicap in Programs or Activities Receiving Federal Financial Assistance [7 CFR 15b].

The USDA called for child nutrition programs to use as many methods as were available from newsletters, to district/school websites, to phone calls and social media, in order to encourage parent participation and applications for Free and Reduced meals. Additionally, it clarified that any information regarding meal benefits should be communicated with consideration to disabilities. Ensure that this year you pay special consideration not just towards parents who may not speak English, but also those who may not be able to read materials you send home due to a disability. 

Local Education Areas and Eligibility

The current Student Eligibility manual now outlines Area Eligibility criteria on how snacks and meals served at area-eligible National School Lunch Program (NSLP) Afterschool Snack Service and Seamless Summer Option (SSO) meals are reimbursed. The manual also spells out the criteria for reimbursement rates based on an identified student percentage equation of at least 50% of students. Clarification is also included regarding procedures for students transferring between LEAs.

Most importantly, this version also highlights an emphasis on LEAs incorporating online application software that has advanced functionality to prevent errors. This functionality includes features that prevent any application with blank fields being submitted, or which incorporate error messages that highlight missing information. If you do not currently have an online application system that uses these features, you may want to browse through our SchoolCafé Student Eligibility mobile app.

General Eligibility Updates

Line-by-line updates were also made to more general aspects of the eligibility process, so below you’ll find some items that saw updates. All of these changes are highlighted within the USDA document we updated, and which you can download here for you and your convenience.

Items addressed within the new manual release:

  •  Further clarification on income exclusions
  • More references in text links added throughout the document to referenced regulations, in order to guide readers
  • Additional clarification on Verification methods and sampling, with mention of Rolling Verification
  • The addition of Direct Certification with Medicaid
  • Outlines for Direct Certification matching processes that check and match records across governmental agency lists
  • Descriptions of Other Source Categorical Eligibility options

This post only includes a high level overview of larger changes to the manual, so be sure to use this as a tool to substantiate the information provided by the USDA.

To access the USDA Eligibility Manual for School Meals with highlighted changes for easy browsing, please click here. If you have any questions or comments on any updates in this year’s manual or regulations, comment below and let me know!