When we think of data sharing we often don’t see the faces of those who immediately benefit from these efforts. For many students in Mississippi’s public-school system, state departments using data wisely could be the difference between passing and failing.
Those of us who have attempted to work or learn on an empty stomach know it makes everything more difficult. This is supported by countless studies published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which have shown a direct correlation between academic success and nutritional health. For this reason, states are federally required to implement a free or reduced-cost meal program in public schools to assure that, at a minimum, 95 percent of youth from lower socio-economic circumstances have the nutrition they need to remain focused and engaged throughout the school day.
According to a recent article in Government Technology (“Interagency Data Sharing Agreement Helps Mississippi Feed Its Schoolchildren,” Government Technology, July 25, 2017), between 20 and 30 percent of students in Mississippi’s public school system who qualified for subsidized meals had not registered in a school meals program and were going entire school days without a meal, despite the fact that Mississippi has a free or reduced-cost meals program in place. As a result of the deficiency, the federal government cited the state for falling short of the mandate requiring 95 percent of eligible students to be enrolled in the subsidized meal program.
In order to address this issue, the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) decided to explore a new approach. Through an interagency agreement, the MDE collaborated with the Department of Human Services (DHS) to electronically match MDE student social security information, provided during school registration, with social security information provided to DHS for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. As a result, MDE found there were numerous students eligible for SNAP benefits who were not receiving subsidized lunches.
By sharing this information, the MDE was able to identify the students that qualified for free lunches and enroll them in the program.
The department demonstrated a significant example of the benefits of data sharing among state agencies. The MDE now meets the federal mandate, serving well over 90 percent of eligible students and has avoided the need for students to provide additional documentation. Most importantly, many at-risk children now receive the nutrition they need to learn and join their classmates at lunch free from the stigma of signing up for subsidized meals and are better able to reach their academic potential.