My idea is to replicate the “Turbo Tax” experience to the free and reduced meal benefit program to allow household easy first time application and onboarding process as well as facilitate an efficient annual verification.
As a benefactor of the free and reduced meal benefits as a child and teenager, I know first hand the incredible, impact this program has had. As noted in this Challenge application, last year school districts approved five million meal benefit applications directly providing access to nine million low-income families. It is unquestionable the need of the program and the continued benefit of re-qualifying deserving households each year via the annual verification process.
As a second generation immigrant who has been through the program, I believe the biggest barrier are two things: language and time. Low-income households where English is not the mother tongue struggle in fully understanding the deadlines and required documents to recertify. Also, low-income families usually work low paying, non-full-time, no benefits, long hour jobs and many times two jobs per person. Also, because parents may not read, speak or write English (but can only verbally understand) their children read to them and translate the questions on the application.
Due to the high volume of applications schools receive, the annual verification process needs to provide a solution that is time-saving and easy to read (for both the parents and children, since the children read the applications to their parents). My idea is to create a “Turbo Tax” like application process and annual verification process.
If you have ever used Turbo Tax (or various online tax self-service), you complete your taxes one year and go through a lengthy and detailed onboarding process. Then the subsequent years you log on and merely confirm whether or not information has changed; saving you time. You only edit information that has changed. And you are prompted through every step to ensure to add any new information.
My idea is that instead of long paragraphs and questions, recertification involves “universal” icons, images and examples to facilitate the ease of answering questions. Noting that the first time someone completes an application, it may be lengthy and a translator might be needed. But the subsequent years a translator is needed less. For example, recertification questions can look like the attached. Instead of this of long form questions. That require a deep contextual understanding of English. With this software solution, we can also use text push notifications when there is missing information, or it’s time to renew informing them to log into the website to finish completion or miss their opportunity to benefit in the program. By having just a website and text messaging low-income households can take full advantage of the convenience of reapplying.
As stated in the Challenge description, many school districts struggle with low verification response rates. Despite their best efforts, some districts get barely half of their households to respond. We all know that if a child goes to school hungry or is hungry while they are in school their grades and morale drop. It is also demoralizing for students to see other students who can afford to eat daily and reduces their self-confidence.
As a small business owner, second generation immigrant and software engineer, I believe my idea will contribute to helping school districts across the country increase their verification response rates, reduce the time and expense associated with repeat follow-up reminders to households, and decrease the risk that eligible children lose access to program benefits. Also, my solution can provide greater transparency to how effective this program is, gather valuable feedback from households on the program and build the case for its continued funding to private and public stakeholders.