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Developing and Evaluating Methods for Using American Community Survey Data to Support the School Meals Programs: Interim Report Executive Summary The National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program, administered by the Food and Nutrition Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), are key components of the nation’s food security safety net, providing free or low-cost meals to millions of school-age children each day. The annual determination of students’ eligibility for free or reduced-price meals requires families to complete and submit applications that are distributed and reviewed by school officials. To reduce the substantial burden on families and schools and expand access to school meals, USDA regulations allow school districts to operate their school meals programs under special provisions that eliminate the application process and some other administrative activities in exchange for providing free meals to all students enrolled in one or more schools in a district. Under the most commonly adopted provisions, USDA reimburses districts for meals served on the basis of data collected in a “base year,” during which applications are taken. After 3 or 4 years, applications must be taken again to establish new base-year data, unless the district provides evidence that local conditions have not changed. While providing universal free meals, a school district must use nonfederal funds to make up any difference between its costs and the reimbursement from USDA. Therefore, the special provisions are most attractive for schools with high percentages of students eligible for free or reduced-price meals. The need to reestablish a base year, however, presents challenges. After several years without taking applications, schools can
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Developing and Evaluating Methods for Using American Community Survey Data to Support the School Meals Programs: Interim Report lose institutional knowledge and encounter difficulties in processing applications, and families are no longer accustomed to completing them. A special provision that does not require applications to be taken every few years would further reduce burden, be more attractive to school districts, and potentially increase student participation by expanding access to free meals. To support the development of such a provision, the Food and Nutrition Service asked the National Academies’ Committee on National Statistics and Food and Nutrition Board to convene a panel of experts to study the technical and operational issues that arise in using data from the American Community Survey (ACS)—a new continuous survey replacing the long-form survey of the decennial census—to obtain estimates of students who are eligible for free and reduced-price meals for schools and school districts. Such estimates would be used to develop “claiming percentages” that, if sufficiently accurate, would determine federal reimbursements to districts for the schools that provide free meals to all students under a new special provision that eliminates the base-year requirements of current provisions. The panel is conducting the study in three phases and will issue three reports. This first report, released at the end of the panel’s first year, presents in detail our technical approach to conducting the study. A final report, to be released at the end of the second year, will present findings from empirical analyses, including results from case studies of five or six school districts, and the panel’s recommendations for estimation methods and processes. Because the Census Bureau is not scheduled to release the first set of 5-year period estimates from the ACS until December 2010, those estimates will not be available in time for us to use in the analyses in our final report. The panel will therefore publish an addendum to the final report about 9 months after the release of the 5-year ACS estimates. To develop methods for deriving eligibility estimates for the school meals programs, the panel will assess which combination of ACS variables most closely reflects the eligibility criteria of the programs, working with the Census Bureau to obtain ACS estimates for school districts. School district boundaries are maintained in the bureau’s geographic database (Topologically Integrated Geographic Encoding and Referencing, TIGER) and are updated every 2 years. It is likely that some adjustments and other improvements of ACS estimates will be needed, and the panel will evaluate these improvements. For example, an adjustment might be needed to improve the estimation of program eligibility, which is determined by monthly income, from the annual income data collected in the ACS. To improve the precision of ACS estimates, which are likely to have large sampling errors for individual schools and even many school districts, the panel will investigate the use of small-domain estimation methods based on extensions of the methods
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Developing and Evaluating Methods for Using American Community Survey Data to Support the School Meals Programs: Interim Report used in the Census Bureau’s Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates (SAIPE) Program. The panel will also determine how to use the ACS-based eligibility estimates and other data to derive claiming percentages for reimbursement that reflect the patterns of student participation and the meals that would be served under a new provision with universal free meals. Although the Census Bureau is producing ACS and SAIPE estimates for school districts, it does not maintain geographic information or produce estimates for school attendance areas. To address the challenges that arise in obtaining estimates for individual schools or groups of schools, the panel will conduct case studies of five or six school districts. These districts will provide digitized attendance-area boundaries and detailed information on program operations for their schools. The panel will evaluate the accuracy of the boundaries and develop estimation methods that can be applied to a single school district that is considering whether to adopt a new special provision in only some of its schools. The panel will evaluate the quality of estimates for school districts and schools in terms of sampling error, model bias, timeliness, and other properties that affect their fitness for use in determining reimbursements to school districts. This evaluation will compare potential errors under a new special provision with errors under current procedures for operating the school meals programs. Using data from the case studies, the panel will describe the conditions that would render a new special provision more or less attractive to school districts. Finally, the panel will consider the operational feasibility of estimation methods and identify the administrative agreements and procedures needed to ensure that the recommended methods can be implemented in practice.
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