Count me in! Paperless Enrollment in School Meals for Students in Medi-Cal Households

By Elyse Homel Vitale, Senior Advocate, California Food Policy Advocates

As community schools build out their comprehensive support for students, it doesn’t hurt to go back to the basics: Is everyone who’s eligible getting free school meals? And are we doing all we can to make it easy and welcoming for students to sign up?

Here in California, 3 in 5 public school students are eligible to receive free or reduced-price school meals. However, on an average school day, nearly one million or about one-third of eligible students miss out on the health benefits of school lunch. The numbers are worse for school breakfast. Two million students, about two-thirds, miss out on breakfast. Access to school meals matters – well-nourished kids are better-prepared students; they are able to learn, grow, play, and achieve to their fullest potential.

So what can we do to improve access? For a student to receive a free or reduced-price school meal, they must first be certified as eligible for the program. There are a couple of ways school districts can certify students as eligible, including paper applications and direct certification. California’s existing direct certification process uses other entitlement program data, such as CalFresh, to identify low-income students and certify them for free school meals – no separate paper application for meals is required. With 1 in 3 Californians now enrolled in Medi-Cal, there is a ripe opportunity to get students signed up by leveraging the reach of Medi-Cal.

Medicaid (Medi-Cal) Direct Certification is a powerful tool that school districts will be able to use to increase their paperless enrollment in school meals. It is believed that if fully adopted across the state, an additional 500,000 students OR MORE will be paperlessly enrolled in school meals. Students in Medi-Cal households will be identified through a secure data matching process; school districts will be notified of these matched students; and eligible students will be paperlessly enrolled in free and reduced-price school meals.

For the coming school year, California’s public school districts, county offices of education, and charter schools are approved to participate in Medicaid Direct Certification, upon completion of a required training.

Medicaid Direct Certification has important benefits for students, families, and school districts alike. Here’s how:

First, decreased application burden and decreased error rates. The burden – for both schools and parents – of submitting and processing a paper application will be removed when a student is directly certified. The error rates associated with paper applications also decreases as direct certification increases.

Second, increased school funding. Previous pilots of Medicaid Direct Certification show that the program is likely to result in more students actually consuming school meals, on top of just being enrolled. As school meal participation increases, school districts draw down the associated additional federal and state-funded reimbursements for meals served. Furthermore, as additional eligible students are identified through Medicaid Direct Certification, schools can leverage increased education dollars through the Local Control Funding Formula.

Lastly, improved access to healthy school meals. In addition to more students being identified as eligible, increasing direct certification is related to the number of schools and school districts that qualify for the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP). CEP is an option that schools serving communities with high rates of poverty can utilize to make breakfast and lunch available to all students free of charge. When CEP is used, alternative models of serving meals, like Breakfast After the Bell, work best and reach even more students.

Medicaid Direct Certification is a well-tested, efficient, and effective tool for increasing enrollment in school meals. We know it works, and we know that there are benefits for schools and families alike. While Medicaid Direct Certification is not yet available statewide, it is coming, and there are steps you can take to make sure there is a smooth and quick rollout: (1) Ask about direct certification in your schools (Is your district regularly conducting direct certification? Do they plan on adding in Medicaid Direct Certification when it becomes available?). (2) Initiate conversations with district, school board, and community leaders about this exciting opportunity and how it aligns with your vision of integrated health, services, and academics.

Additional resources:

CFPA’s fact sheet on Medicaid Direct Certification.
Check out the infographic.
Learn more about CFPA’s school meal enrollment advocacy.
Why School Nutrition Matters by CFPA & Partner for Children & Youth
Note: The California Department of Education has agreed to announce the required training dates in spring 2017 and is committed to making Medicaid Direct Certification available statewide in the 2017-18 school year.

Elyse Homel Vitale, Senior Advocate, California Food Policy Advocates at or 510-433-1122 ext. 206