Estimating payment errors in the National School Meal Programs

The Challenge 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) established the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and the School Breakfast Program (SBP) to provide critical nutrition for school children.

On a typical school day in 2013, the program provided lunch to over 30 million children and breakfast to 13 million children, most of whom received the meals free or at a reduced cost.

Inherent in the administration of a vast national program is the potential for payment errors. Two earlier studies, known as Access, Participation, Eligibility, and Certification (APEC), commissioned by the FNS to obtain estimates of payments errors estimated $1.8 billion and $2.7 billion in erroneous payments during the 2005-06 and the 2012-13 school years, respectively.

In response to these findings, FNS launched a comprehensive plan to reduce payment errors in the school meal programs. Westat will conduct the third study, APEC III, to calculate the national estimate of payment errors for the 2017-18 school year.

Our Solutions 

  • APEC III will build on the previous studies with enhancements, such as a larger sample to increase estimate precision.

  • We will examine how characteristics of students, schools, and School Food Authorities (SFA) may contribute to or minimize payment errors. The data collection will include abstraction of application records, meal observations, and household surveys with parents/guardians who applied for free or reduced-priced meals.

  • We will also improve procedures for collecting household income data. In-depth interviews with SFA directors, cafeteria managers, and parents will shed light on the circumstances that lead to or prevent payment errors.

  • This study uses Blaise, a comprehensive commercial, off-the-shelf (COTS) survey processing system. It provides integrated multimode support for computer-assisted survey data collection. This includes interviewer-assisted (e.g., computer-assisted personal interviewing [CAPI], computer-assisted telephone interviewing [CATI]) and self-response (e.g., computer-assisted web interviewing [CAWI]) modes across a wide variety of platforms (smartphone, tablet, desktop).

The Results 

  • The results of the first two APEC investigations led FNS to create strategies for better fiscal management, streamlined implementation of the program, and steps to ensure that benefits are received by those in need.

  • APEC-III will determine if reforms have reduced payment errors and if the current rates meet the federal targets. It will produce policy and procedural recommendations FNS can take to reduce payment errors.

  • We will also provide a statistical model for forecasting future error rates.

Our Client 

Food and Nutrition Service (FNS)