Household Applications

SFAs must provide household applications to families applying for free or reduced price meals or free milk benefits, unless the household has been directly certified. The prototype 2020-2021 Application for Free and Reduced Price School Meals/Milk that should be used by SFAs is included in the Attachments tab.

Applications must be reviewed in a timely manner. An eligibility determination must be made, the family notified of its status, and the status implemented within 10 operating days of the receipt of the application. Whenever possible, applications should be processed immediately, particularly for children who do not have approved applications on file from the previous year. *Please also see “Flexibility in Determining the Effective Date for Children receiving free or reduced price benefits.” 

Income Eligibility Guidelines

The current Income Eligibility Guidelines must be used for the Child Nutrition Programs (CNPs) for determining eligibility for free and reduced price meals and free milk and are based on the federal income poverty guidelines by household size. The 2020-2021 Income Eligibility Guidelines can be found here.

The free and reduced income eligibility scales must be used for eligibility determinations and must be included in the public release that must be sent to the local newspaper, the local unemployment office, and to any major employer contemplating large layoffs in the area.

Only the reduced price income eligibility scale may accompany the parent letter and application in those schools participating in the National School Lunch Program and/or School Breakfast Program.  Including the free income eligibility scale with the parent letter and application will result in the SFA being ineligible to receive free reimbursement.

The free income eligibility scale may not be posted on the school website or printed in any school publication. SFAs in non-compliance would have to reissue the parent letter with the proper scale and application form and verify all reissued applications to receive free reimbursement for the balance of the school year.

Income Applications

To establish that a household meets income eligibility requirements for benefits, reviewing officials must compare the household size and the total household income to the applicable Income Eligibility Guidelines.

Only complete applications can be approved for meal benefits. Applications missing required information must be denied if the missing information cannot be obtained. To be considered complete, an application must include the required information. The SFA should make reasonable efforts to contact the household to obtain or clarify required information. All contact with families regarding eligibility can and should be documented on the application.

A complete income application must provide:

  • Names of all household members;
  • Amount, source, and frequency of current income for each household member;
  • Signature of an adult household member; and
  • Last four digits of the social security number of the household’s primary wage earner or another adult household member, or an indication that the household member does not have one.

If an application lacks how frequently income is received (e.g., weekly, monthly, etc.), the reviewing official should make reasonable efforts to contact the household to clarify the frequency of income. If the SFA is unable to reach the family, the SFA will process the income as weekly.

*Note: Applications cannot be approved for temporary free or temporary reduced price benefits. There is no temporary eligibility.

Reportable Income

Households must report current income on a free and reduced price application. See the USDA Eligibility Manual for School Meals for additional information on reportable income.

  • Income is any money (before deductions), received on a recurring basis, including earnings, pensions, and child or spousal support, unless an income source is specifically excluded by law for the Child Nutrition Programs.
  • Gross earned income means all money earned before deductions such as income taxes, employee’s Social Security taxes, insurance premiums, and bonds.
  • Current income means the gross income received by a household, before deductions, for the current month, or the amount projected for the first month for which the application is filled out, or for the month prior to application. If this income is higher or lower than usual and does not fairly or accurately represent the household’s actual circumstances, the household may, in conjunction with determining officials, project its annual rate of income. USDA does not set any specific requirements regarding the frequency (e.g., weekly, bi-weekly, monthly) at which household income is reported on an application. While in most cases earners report income on a more frequent basis, there is no prohibition against annual income reporting. For more information, see: SP 19-2017: Reporting Annual Income on School Meal Applications, https://www.fns.usda.gov/school-meals/reporting-annual-income-school-meal-applications.
Indicating Income and Income Sources

Each household must provide the total amount of current gross income. The application must identify the source of the income earned by adults or children as applicable, and the adult or child who received it (such as wages or Social Security) [7 CFR 245.6(a)(5)(i) and 245.6(a)(5)(ii)].

Indication of No Income

Applications where the family has reported zero (0) income must be given free meal benefits from the point of approval, through the end of the school year. These families must also be provided free benefits for the first 30 operating days of the next school year (or until a new application is received for the next school year, whichever comes first). Any income field left blank is a positive indication of no income and certifies there is no income to report. 

Income Conversion for Multiple Frequencies of Income

Many households have different sources of income at different frequencies, such as weekly or bi-weekly (every two weeks) wages and/or monthly social security benefits.

Use the following procedures:

  • If a household has only one income source, or if all sources are the same frequency, do not use conversion factors. Compare the income or the sum of the incomes to the published Income Eligibility Guidelines for the appropriate frequency and household size to make the eligibility determination.
  • If a household reports income sources at more than one frequency, the acceptable method is to convert all income to an annual amount by multiplying weekly income by 52, income received every two weeks by 26, income received twice per month by 24 and income received monthly by 12. Do not round the values resulting from each conversion. Add all the un-rounded converted values and compare the un-rounded total to the published Income Eligibility Guidelines for annual income for the appropriate household size.

*Note: School districts must ensure that software they are using does not convert all income to monthly. Software should only convert to annual income when there are multiple income frequencies. The software should not round up each frequency calculation before totaling.

Income Exclusions

Income excluded from the determination of a household’s eligibility for free and reduced price meal benefits includes the following:

  • Any cash income or value of benefits excluded by statute, such as the value of benefits under SNAP or FDPIR and some Federal educational benefits;
  • Payments received from a foster care agency or court for the care of foster children;
  • Student financial assistance provided for the costs of attendance at an educational institution, such as grants and scholarships awarded to meet educational expenses and not available to pay for meals;
  • Loans, such as bank loans, since these funds are only temporarily available and must be repaid; and
  • Infrequent earnings received on an irregular basis, such as payment for occasional baby-sitting or yard work.

Also see the USDA Eligibility Manual for School Meals for additional information.

Applications for residents of Residential Child Care Institutions (RCCIs)

Each child residing in an RCCI is considered a household of one. An application is completed for each child unless the RCCI uses an eligibility documentation sheet for all children residing in the RCCI.

The RCCI eligibility documentation sheet must be signed by an appropriate official and include:

  • Child’s name,
  • Personal income received by the child,
  • Child’s date of birth,
  • Date of admission,
  • Date of release,
  • Official’s title, and
  • Official’s contact information.

Children attending but not residing in an RCCI are considered members of the household where they reside. Their eligibility is determined using a household application or through direct certification.

Applications for Categorical Eligibility

A child who is a member of a household that receives benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), or Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR) Assistance Programs is categorically eligible for free meals or milk. Households receiving benefits under Assistance Programs and submitting a free and reduced price application must list a valid case number on the application.

School officials must familiarize themselves with valid SNAP/TANF case numbers before beginning the application approval process. When you conduct the required matching through the Direct Certification Matching Process (DCMP), you will become familiar with the SNAP numbers of your locale. It is imperative that SNAP or TANF applications are correctly approved with proper numbers to prevent potential fiscal sanctions being assessed against the SFA.

If families do not know their SNAP or TANF case numbers, you should first look in the SNAP DCMP electronic file. If you fail to locate the child, you should advise the family to: (1) contact their local Department of Social Services to obtain their case number, then complete sections 2 and 4 of the application; or (2) complete sections 3 and 4 of the application reporting family income.

Applications with invalid case numbers should not be approved. Families receiving SNAP or TANF no longer have a benefit issuance card that contains the information identifying that the family is currently eligible for benefits or their SNAP or TANF case number. Families must refer to the letter they receive from their local Department of Social Services to obtain their SNAP or TANF case numbers.

It is important to note that even if you do not locate a student during the DCMP, if you receive an application with a SNAP or TANF case number, you must approve the application for free meals.

For applications with a case number for an Assistance Program, a complete application must provide:

  • Section 1: Names of the children for whom the application is made;
  • Section 2: SNAP, TANF or FDPIR case number or identifier, for the children or any household member listed on the application; and
  • Section 4: Signature of the adult household member completing the application.

*Note: Applications that list a valid SNAP, TANF or FDPIR case number do not have to include the last four digits of the adult household member’s social security number.