Direct Certification: Feeding Students for Free

With summer break almost here, Texas school administrators and nutrition directors are planning and strategizing the best ways to serve their students next school year. One of the ways districts with high-poverty schools can ensure that their most vulnerable students receive healthy meals is through the effective implementation of direct certification.

Direct certification is a federally mandated electronic data-matching process that determines eligibility for free school meals based on a student’s participation in other need-based programs. Other programs used for certification include the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly “food stamps”), the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR), or Medicaid.

Direct Certification Benefits Everyone

Direct certification helps everyone: students, families, and the school meals system.

Students at a high risk for hunger, who have already gone through a rigorous eligibility process and have been approved for programs like SNAP or Medicaid, are eligible for free school meals when they are directly certified by their district.

When a district directly certified a student, schools no longer have to spend time collecting school meal applications, handling meal payment accounts, or tracking whether each meal served was paid, reduced-price, or free. Efficient direct certification allows schools to feed more kids healthy food, ease the burden on low-income parents, and improve focus and learning for all students.

Effective direct certification can also increase the number of identified students for nutrition program options like the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP). Through CEP, districts can provide free school meals (both breakfast and lunch) to all students in schools where at least 40 percent of students are directly certified. By investing in improving direct certification rates, eligible districts can increase the reimbursements they would receive under CEP and make it a financially viable option to implement, leading to increased access to healthy meals and more  funding for schools.

Recommendations for an Effective Direct Certification Process

School districts can take proactive measures to improve their direct certification processes. Districts that have successfully implemented direct certification recommend that districts and schools do the following:

  1. Build capacity within their district through training and professional development on direct certification.
  2. Have their school nutrition department work closely with their Public Education Information Management System (PEIMS) and Information and Technology (IT) departments.
  3. Effectively use all available data sources to find all eligible students (for example, the most current enrollment, migrant, runaway, Texas Education Agency, and Texas Department of Agriculture data).
  4. Proactively seek to extend direct certification to more students.
  5. Invest in a strong matching system (e.g. integrating PEIMS and school nutrition department’s system).
  6. Perform direct certification frequently.
  7. Encourage families to apply for SNAP.

Read our brief to learn more about direct certification and best practices for its effective implementation.

CPPP Health & Wellness Intern Arinda Rodriguez contributed to this blog.

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