How can errors in school meal programs be reduced?

Estimating payment errors in the National School Meal Programs with Access, Participation, Eligibility, and Certification (APEC)


The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and the School Breakfast Program (SBP) provide critical nutrition to school children. On an average school day in 2019, the NSLP served lunches to 29 million children, most of whom qualified to receive the meals for free or at a reduced price.

Inherent in the administration of a large national program is the potential for program and payment errors. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) commissioned 3 studies, known as Access, Participation, Eligibility, and Certification (APEC), to obtain national estimates of program and payment errors.

Westat will conduct the 4th study, APEC IV, to calculate updated national estimates of errors for the 2023-24 school year. Westat previously conducted APEC III and collaborated on APEC II.


APEC IV will build on the previous APEC studies, and examine how characteristics of students, schools, and school food authorities affect program and payment errors. The study also includes several enhancements:

  • Evaluate whether USDA’s online application prototype generates a more accurate and complete accounting of household size and income
  • Examine the mode effect of in-person vs. telephone interviews on the household survey
  • Test the use of cameras to capture data on the components of students’ meal trays

This study will use computer-assisted personal interviewing (CAPI), computer-assisted telephone interviewing (CATI), and computer-assisted web interviewing (CAWI) software across a wide variety of platforms (smartphone, tablet, desktop) during data collection.


The results of the first 3 APEC studies led FNS to create strategies for better fiscal management and streamlined implementation of the program, and to ensure that benefits are received by those in need.

APEC IV will determine if reforms have reduced errors and if the current rates meet the federal targets. It will produce policy and procedural recommendations to reduce errors.

Learn more:

Third Access, Participation, Eligibility, And Certification Study (APEC-III), School Year 2017-18 | Food and Nutrition Service


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