The Latest in USDA Updates for Direct Certification

Direct certification (DC)  is an essential component to school nutrition programs across the country. The data collected by the DC process enables Local Education Agencies (LEAs) to give access to meals quickly and easily to eligible students without the need for a household application. It also impacts federal reimbursement rates and community eligibility status for schools that need it most. To do this, LEAs must run a match of categorical eligibility files (such as SNAP, TANF, FDPIR, Homeless, Migrant, Runaway, Foster, Medicaid, etc,) against their student database. Without the right tools, this can be an incredibly tedious process to manage and keep up to date, resulting in low match rates and unnecessary administrative work. Over the past decade, however, the USDA has steadily committed to improving Direct Certification performance, from removing the requirement of SNAP letter notifications by parents, to implementing incentives and awards for high direct certification results.

In this blog, we’ll take a look at some of the latest USDA updates to DC and how it helps promote access to meals and nutrition assistance to children. 

Latest Improvements to the Direct Certification Process for State Agencies

The USDA recognizes the importance of having an efficient solution for DC processes at the local and state level. USDA implemented a couple of grants in the last two fiscal years to help state agencies:

Direct Certification Improvement Grants

In Fiscal Year 2018, the Division of Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) made grants available to state agencies that administer the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and the School Breakfast Program (SBP) to make improvements to the Direct Certification performance. Under this Request for Application (RFA), FNS offered two types of Direct Certification Improvement Grants: 

  • Tier 1: Limited-scope planning and implementation grants for up to $250,000 to fund short-term projects to improve DC. 
  • Tier 2: Full-scope implementation grants for up to $1,000,000 to fund direct certification implementation projects of significant scope, for periods of one to three years. 

The agency’s intention was “for the grants to assist states in improving access, increasing accuracy, and reducing paperwork in the NSLP and SBP by simplifying the certification process for free school meals.”

Child Nutrition Technology Innovation Grants 

Another grant that was made available to state agencies administering child nutrition programs was in Fiscal Year 2019 for innovative technology solutions that could be applied to areas such as Direct Certification improvements. FNS offered two types of grants: 

  • CN Technology Innovation Planning Grants (TIG) for awards up to $100,000 with grant periods of up to one year.
  • CN Technology Innovation Implementation Grants for awards up to $2,000,000 with grant periods of one to three years.

The purpose was to encourage state agencies to “propose innovative technology solutions that improve program accountability and efficiencies at both the state and local levels.” When it comes to Direct Certification, some state agencies “maintain automated systems at the state level that rely on operational data from the local levels including, but not limited to, program applications, eligibility certifications (including direct certification), verification (including direct certification), meal counting and claiming, menu planning, program monitoring, and program reporting. The CN TIGs can be used to bridge gaps in automation.” 

Why is all this funding being put into Direct Certification Improvements?

DC Helps collect crucial data needed by schools and their communities, with or without a regulated meal service in place, because it helps ensure support and access to Federal Nutrition Assistance programs.

Pandemic EBT for State Agencies

In 2020, having access to accurate DC information helped State Agencies collect data for communities impacted by COVID-19 closures by providing pandemic benefits for eligible families. As USDA explained, “States must use the best available data to determine whether students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, and therefore eligible for P-EBT.” It was also strongly encouraged for state agencies and school districts to use their established application processes and direct certification systems to determine these children’s eligibility.

Cancellation of Reporting Requirements for SY 20-21

Earlier this year USDA released a waiver to cancel a few administrative data reporting requirements for the current school year such as the FNS-834, the State Agency Direct Certification Rate Data Element Report, due to the extension of flexibilities that allow school districts to serve meals to all children for free in SY20-21. But, even though the submission of FNS-834 is not required this year, “LEAs are still required to…conduct direct certification with SNAP at least three times per school year” and encouraged to “continue with all scheduled data exchanges and matching activities to ensure access to timely results.”

Are you collecting accurate data with your Direct Certification process?

State Agencies are required to directly certify at least 95 percent of school-aged children in SNAP households. Recent findings have shown that only about half of state agencies have met the required rate. If you find that your agency isn’t meeting these numbers, consider taking advantage of the grants available to you and utilizing a solution that can help you achieve high match rates, upload files, and share data with your SFAs. See how PrimeroEdge can help.