July 10, 2024

In a commendable move toward ensuring the nutritional well-being of our nation’s youth, five additional states will begin certifying children as eligible for free or reduced-price school meals using Medicaid data: Idaho, Maine, New Jersey, North Dakota, and Rhode Island. This significant step forward deserves acknowledgment and applause because of Medicaid Direct Certification’s role in simplifying access for eligible students to crucial federal nutrition programs. 

Direct certification with Medicaid data maximizes access to school meals by automatically identifying students as eligible for free or reduced-price school meals (based on the household income that Medicaid has on file) without having to submit a school meals application. This approach offers a host of advantages: 

  • Efficiency: By bypassing paperwork and administrative hurdles, direct certification saves valuable time and resources for both families and schools. 
  • Health and well-being: Participation in nutritious school meals promotes better health outcomes and enhances academic performance among students. 
  • Program administration: Medicaid Direct Certification reduces the number of school meals applications that schools must collect, process, and verify, while also increasing schools’ ability to implement the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), thus reducing administrative work and expanding students access to nutritious school meals.   
  • Summer nutrition: Medicaid Direct Certification also helps connect children to the Summer Electronic Benefit Transfer Program, which has been shown to reduce food insecurity and improve nutrition. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is accepting applications from states interested in initiating Medicaid Direct Certification for the 2025–2026 school year, and state agencies are encouraged to apply as soon as possible. Brigette Hires, director of the Office of Nutrition at the Ohio Department of Education, emphasized the importance of direct certification in increasing access to nutritious food and reducing stigma among school children. “We know expanded access to nutritious food makes such a relevant impact for students to learn and grow.” She stated that Ohio’s enrollment in Medicaid Direct Certification coincided with software updates to match eligible students, making it a “two-fold win” as students were able to be matched for Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) utilizing enhanced features that made the software more user-friendly. 

In Oklahoma, Jennifer Weber, program director in the Office of Child Nutrition at the Oklahoma Department of Education, echoed the importance of Medicaid Direct Certification in reaching school children who are hungry. Since participating in the demonstration project, statewide, eligibility for free and reduced-price school meals increased by 5.14 percent, indicating a “clear need.” “Being part of this pilot is benefitting more students in the state, and we’ve gotten great responses from the districts.” 

Direct certification with Medicaid data also has system-wide implications. Mark Frantz, one of the senior directors of Health and Nutrition Services at the Arizona Department of Education, shared that the implementation of the pilot program “has resulted in a significant increase in free matches through the direct certification process. This has also resulted in an increased identified student percentage for many schools, allowing them to participate in the community eligibility program and offer meals at no cost to students.” The state saw an increase of over 200 schools applying to CEP for the 2023–2024 school year, and as of January 2024, the Arizona Department of Education “had an additional 211,000 students directly certified in NSLP [National School Lunch Program] participating schools as a result of Medicaid data.”  

While celebrating the progress made by these states, it is essential to encourage others to follow suit. Currently, seven states and the District of Columbia do not participate in the Medicaid Direct Certification Demonstration Project (Alaska, Arkansas, Hawaii, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, and South Dakota).  

USDA Is Accepting Applications 

State agencies that administer school meals programs can apply now to participate in the Medicaid Direct Certification Demonstration Project for the 20242025 school year. USDA provides comprehensive guidance and support for states interested in implementing Medicaid Direct Certification, including assistance with the application process, on their website. State agencies should contact their USDA Food and Nutrition Service Regional Office for additional information regarding the application process.   

Additionally, USDA is accepting grant applications from state agencies to improve their direct certification systems. Streamlining and refining the direct certification process eases meal application burdens for families and schools and connects more eligible children to meal benefits. USDA is prioritizing applications from state agencies with less than 95 percent SNAP direct certification rates, as reported in the latest Direct Certification in the National School Lunch Program Report to Congress. Applications for the Direct Certification Improvement Grant are due on Monday, July 29, 2024.  

Let’s continue to build on this momentum by improving direct certification systems and utilizing Medicaid data to create efficiencies that benefit children, families, and schools. Together, we can ensure that every child can thrive and succeed, unimpeded by hunger or food insecurity.