Until recently, Mississippi had a problem feeding its school children. Despite the free or reduced-cost lunch program, a portion of students were going unfed during school hours. As learning requires the ability to concentrate on the lessons — not a growling stomach or concern over where the next meal will come from — officials were determined to fix the problem.
The state and schools within it had struggled with how to bridge the gap between their free and reduced-cost lunch program and the communities it is meant to serve. Even with outreach and education, eligible students were being passed over.
The feds took notice of the situation and cited the state, but despite the obvious need and attention given, nothing seemed to increase lunch program numbers. After running through other options, the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) turned to hard data — and an interagency agreement — to put a stop to a trend that agency CIO Dr. John Porter said had been occurring since as long as the lunch program existed.
For the last several years, the state’s schools hovered at identifying and serving 70 to 80 percent of eligible students, and were under corrective action to bring that figure up to the federally mandated 95 percent mark, Porter explained.
Rather than turn to the schools to sort out the deficiencies, the MDE turned to the Department of Human Services (DHS) and a dataset officials knew would overlap with the students they were looking for.
“We decided that we were going to try to work with DHS to take their SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] data and match that with our student data where the key field was Social Security number, and see could we get a better match,” Porter said.
Not only did the plan boost the state’s matching compliance to the mid- to high-90s, it also improved the administrative process required of schools, parents and students themselves.
“We had a feeling that most of our students' families were also receiving SNAP and we were correct about that," he said. "After getting our file and doing our matching, we were able to get about a 97-98 percent match against our student database. Not only did we satisfy the requirements of the federal government, but it met our — school nutrition organization predicted it was probably somewhere between $16 [million] and $19 million in [additional meal funds] to the state as a result of that per year.”
Sarita Donaldson, bureau director of MDE core school systems, hatched the data-reconciliation idea with the support of Porter and other agency leaders. She explained that the process that previously had each school reporting up to the state has been inverted, reducing much of their administrative burden.
A master SNAP file, shared by DHS, is cross-checked against MDE student data before being pushed out to the schools and food service directors. The streamlined process also means students no longer avoid submitting their lunch program documents because of what many see as a stigma around the service.
“You know you are going to have a problem once you get past elementary school, and that is the older the kids get, the more the parents allow more to be done by the students themselves…,” Porter said. “Then you have students that don’t want to be identified because of the stigma of being identified for free and reduced lunch.”
Whatever the reason behind the gaps in self-reporting, the new way of doing things removes not only the need for students or parents to file documents with the school, but it removes a substantial reporting requirement from the schools to MDE.
Where there used to be significant administrative costs, schools can focus on more necessary educational undertakings, rather than receiving, scanning and submitting paperwork to the state.
“To me, the ultimate impact is more than the $16 [million] to $19 million — it’s also all the cost that would have been in administration at the school level and the parents' time,” Porter said. “It was really about doing what is best for kids. We knew we had the kids, we know we have the poverty and the need is here, and there is this money that could have helped feed these kids that we were not receiving. So what could we do to solve that problem?”