Taking participation into account, however, is complicated because participation rates will likely increase in each category—probably by different amounts—if a district adopts the AEO and provides free meals to all students in some or all of its schools. As noted above, given standard economic assumptions about the role of prices in demand for school meals (that school meals are a normal good, for which demand increases when the price decreases), adoption of the AEO would be expected to increase demand among all students who were not already approved to receive free meals. The availability of free school meals for all students might also be expected to increase demand (increase the number of school meals consumed) among those eligible for free meals because it would reduce the family’s burden of applying for benefits and remove any perceived stigma associated with participating in the program. Because the panel had limited data with which to assess the impact of increases in participation attributable to providing free meals, we simulated the potential effects of the AEO on participation and examined how the simulated participation effects would affect BRRs. In light of our results, our proposed procedure for implementing the AEO includes the operation of a base year during which all students receive free meals, applications are solicited from parents, and certification and verification are conducted. With this approach, as under Provision 2, the increases in participation can be estimated and reflected in claiming percentages. The claiming percentages will also incorporate eligibility estimates based on the most recently released ACS data.

Assessment of the Need for Benchmarking

The panel’s central goal was to assess the suitability of ACS estimates to support the school meals programs from the perspective of the estimates’ fitness for use. We found that the conceptual fit of the ACS estimates is acceptable, although it would benefit from additional research. Chapter 4 presents our analysis of any systematic differences between ACS and administrative estimates and considers the precision, temporal stability, and timeliness of ACS estimates. If there are districts in which ACS eligibility estimates fluctuate excessively in ways that are not consistent with real changes in socioeconomic conditions, there will be little a district can do other than decide not to adopt the AEO. If ACS estimates are fairly stable but differ systematically from administrative estimates, however, a procedure for benchmarking the ACS estimates to the administrative estimates could provide the best way to use ACS data in support of the school meals programs. Based on the results of our analyses (presented in Chapter 4 and in several appendixes), we developed procedures for implementing the AEO, presented in Chapter 5.

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