School meal applications are one way to determine students' eligibility for free or reduced-price school meals. They also gather demographic information about school and neighborhood populations in order to determine Title 1 and Summer Food Service Program eligibility. It is important for schools to encourage all families to fill out school meal applications to ensure any student who is eligible receives the free or reduced-price meals to which they are entitled.
Households can fill out school meal applications any time of the year and can reapply for meal benefits if they experience a change in income—even if previously denied. The USDA offers school meal applications in 49 different languages for families who do not read English and who may have trouble filling out the standard application, as well as assistance for limited literacy populations.
Some students may not need to return an application in order to be eligible for school meals. Direct certification allows families enrolled in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), certain MassHealth insurances, and/or homeless, foster, or migrant students to automatically receive free or reduced-price school meals.
Promote School Meal Applications
Increasing the number of returned applications can help schools increase breakfast participation and provide free or reduced-price meals to all students who need them. Some strategies for increasing the return rates of school meal applications include:
- Train parent liaisons and school counselors to help parents fill out school meal applications.
- Make sure school staff can answer frequently asked questions about the form.
- Make applications available at all parent events (open houses, parent conference nights, etc).
- Send blank applications to places where parents frequently go such as local food pantries, parent information centers, health centers, after school programs, WIC programs, churches, and Head Start centers. Ask organization staff to help parents complete the applications.
- Program the school’s automatic phone and/or texting system with a message about school meal applications.
- Use incentives, such as an extra 10 minutes of recess, a night off from homework, or a gift card, to the first classroom or school to return completed applications for all students.
- Reach out to those families that are hesitant to apply for school meal benefits or whose income may be difficult to calculate.
- Some people are afraid to complete a school meal application because of their immigration status. However, a social security number is not required to receive meal benefits, and all information contained in the SMA is kept confidential.
- Families who work seasonally are encouraged to list their projected annual income on their child’s school meal application instead of monthly income which fluctuates throughout the year.