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At a Glance


U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service

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Project Publications


The National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs: Access, Participation, Eligibility, and Certification Study (APEC)

The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and School Breakfast Program (SBP) play a critical role in America's strategy to ensure that children have access to nutritious meals. These programs, which provide free and reduced-price meals for students from low-income families, must balance competing objectives: (1) ensuring that children and families who receive benefits are eligible; (2) maintaining ease of access for those who are eligible; and (3) keeping the costs and burden of determining eligibility reasonable both for School Food Authorities (SFAs) and for families.

Mathematica's APEC study estimated erroneous reimbursements created by certification errors, as well as meal counting and claiming errors to enable USDA to meet its federal reporting requirements under the Improper Payments Information Act of 2002. The study also looked at the application and certification process to identify reasons that some families do not participate and difficulties they experience in applying.

Highlights included:

  • For all students who applied for school meal benefits or directly certified, the total certification error rate was 22.5 percent. In other words, about one in five were incorrectly deemed eligible for the level of benefits they were approved for or erroneously denied benefits.
  • For both the NSLP and SBP about 9 percent of total meal reimbursements were erroneous because of certification error.
  • Overcertification was more common than undercertification.
  • Household misreporting of their household circumstances was substantially more common than administrative errors by districts or schools as sources of certification error.
  • Cashier error (counting nonreimbursable meals as reimbursable) represented more than one-third of non-certification error in the NSLP and nearly two-thirds in the SBP.

The nationally representative sample included 87 school districts nationwide and 266 public and private schools. During the 2005-2006 school year, Mathematica conducted a survey of SFA directors, collected data on meal counting and claiming activities from the SFA and study schools, selected samples of meal program applicants and nonapplicants and conducted in-person interviews with the parent or guardian of these households, and abstracted data from sampled students' applications and other data. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service, funded the study.


"Who Picks Up the Tab? Reducing Payment Errors in School Nutrition Programs" Trends in Nutrition Policy, Issue Brief #3 (February 2009) 
"Erroneous Payments in the NSLP and SBP. Volume I: Findings. NSLP/SBP Access, Participation, Eligibility, and Certification Study" Volume I (October 2007)
"Erroneous Payments in the NSLP and SBP Volume II: Sampling and Data Analysis Appendices. NSLP/SBP Access, Participation, Eligibility, and Certification Study" Volume II (October 2007)