The U.S. Department of Agriculture should improve eligibility verification for recipients of free and reduced-price school meals, the Government Accountability Office recommends in a report released today.
The federal oversight agency came to its conclusion after reviewing a small, nonrepresentative sample of federal employees around the country whose families are recipients, cross-checking with federal salary data to ensure if they were properly enrolled. Included in the pool were 19 households that were deemed eligible because of self-reported income. The GAO found that nine of those families were not actually eligible because they exceeded income limits. Those applicants fudged eligibility by excluding the income of one parent, lying about household income, or lying about household size.
In some cases, questionable applications that should have been reviewed under a process included in National School Lunch policies were ignored by districts, the report says. Officials in nine out of 25 districts reviewed said they did not complete "for-cause verification," which is a review of questionable participant applications. Such a review may be triggered "when a household submits a modified application—changing income or the household members—after being denied or when different households include identical public-assistance benefit numbers," the report says.
The GAO recommends the USDA revise its guidance on questionable applications to include examples of scenarios that should trigger an eligibility review. It also suggests a computerized process to match application information to other data sources—such as state income databases or public-assistance rolls—to review reported income.
The review was requested by Sens. Thomas Carper (D-Del.), Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), and Thad Cochran (R-Miss.); and Reps. John Kline (R-Minn.) and Todd Rokita (R-Ind.). All requesters chair or hold ranking positions on committees related to education, agriculture, and governmental affairs. The GAO included this reason for its review:
"The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has designated the [National School Lunch Program] as one of 13 federal 'high-error' programs due to its large estimated improper payments—approximately $1.8 billion in fiscal year 2013. According to OMB guidance, an improper payment is any payment that should not have been made or that was made in an incorrect amount (including overpayments and underpayments) under statutory, contractual, administrative, or other legally applicable requirements."
The USDA has taken several steps in recent years to prevent ineligible beneficiaries from receiving school meals benefits, the report says. Those efforts include:
- An increased use of direct certification, through which students qualify for free and reduced-price meals after completing more extensive applications for other programs, such as SNAP or, in some states, Medicaid.
- Beginning in 2013-14, state agencies must now conduct on-site reviews of school nutrition programs every three years. Those reviews were previously on a five-year cycle.
- Guidance from USDA clarified that districts "have the authority to review approved applications for free or reduced-price meals for school district employees when known or available information indicates school district employees may have misrepresented their incomes on their applications."
USDA Food and Nutrition Service Administrator Audrey Rowe noted those efforts in an agency response included in the GAO report.