resent completing what appears to be a new form when their children are already receiving free meals at school. As an alternative, a periodic survey of a sample of families with enrolled students could provide updated socioeconomic information for determining reimbursements, and would be less burdensome than annual applications. For most districts, however, collecting high-quality data at an affordable cost through a local survey could be a substantial challenge.
A special provision that would incorporate new data reflecting changes in local conditions without requiring applications to be taken or a special survey to be conducted every few years would be attractive to school districts and families: it would further reduce burden and could potentially increase the numbers of students who partake of school meals by expanding their access to free meals. To this end, FNS asked the National Academies’ Committee on National Statistics and the Institute of Medicine’s Food and Nutrition Board to convene a panel of experts to investigate the technical and operational feasibility of using data from the continuous American Community Survey (ACS) to estimate students eligible for free and reduced-price meals for schools and school districts. The ACS eligibility estimates would be used to develop “claiming percentages” that, if sufficiently accurate, would determine the USDA reimbursements to districts for schools that provided free meals to all students under a new special provision that eliminated the ongoing base-year requirements of current provisions.
The ACS is a natural source of data for deriving such eligibility estimates. As the replacement for the long-form sample of the decennial census, the ACS is designed to produce relatively precise estimates throughout the nation for small geographic areas, such as school districts, by surveying large samples of households and accumulating data over periods of 1, 3, and 5 years, depending on an area’s population. Since becoming fully operational in 2005 (2006 for residents of group quarters), the ACS samples each month about 240,000 housing unit addresses, a target that was increased to 295,000 in June 2011. No other national household sample survey is nearly as large. The U.S. Census Bureau conducts the ACS and achieves high overall response rates of 97 to 98 percent. Collecting information on households and their members—including household composition, school attendance and educational attainment, income, participation in government assistance programs, and other characteristics—the ACS provides data for constructing estimates of total enrollment and students eligible for free and reduced-price meals for schools and school districts. The panel examined alternative procedures for constructing such estimates, provided the Census Bureau with a set of specifications, and evaluated the resulting estimates.
The panel conducted this study in two phases. It first issued an