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FNS Uses Research to Protect Taxpayer Dollars

Posted by Rich Lucas, Acting Deputy Administrator for Policy Support in Food and Nutrition
Apr 30, 2014
Integrity is an essential component of all USDA nutrition assistance programs, including the school meals programs.
Integrity is an essential component of all USDA nutrition assistance programs, including the school meals programs.

During the month of April we will take a closer look at USDA’s Groundbreaking Research for a Revitalized Rural America, highlighting ways USDA researchers are improving the lives of Americans in ways you might never imagine, while ensuring that our program are effective and well managed.

For Federal nutrition assistance programs to succeed over the long term, they must operate with a high degree of integrity.  The American people expect and deserve nothing less.  At FNS, we use research and analysis to take a hard look at integrity in these programs, determine strengths and challenges, and shape innovations to continuously improve.

While fraud and errors are low in FNS programs, we assert that any level of either is unacceptable.  High-quality research is an integral component in our integrity efforts because it enables us to see where fraud and errors occur and identify ways to strengthen the programs against those challenges and track progress over time:


  • Several studies on trafficking – the sale of SNAP benefits for cash – have carefully examined where trafficking occurs and guide FNS’ actions to reduce the rate.  Further research enables us to track our progress.  A recent study indicated that trafficking dropped from 4 percent to approximately 1 percent over the past 15 years.
  • We are using analytical studies to better understand fraud by SNAP recipients, and increase our ability to detect and standardize recipient fraud approaches.  FNS is using the study results to develop guidance for states on identifying and implementing the best strategies to fight recipient fraud.
  • Additional data mining analysis and other studies are in development to focus on excessive replacement cards, attempts to commit fraud using social media, and determining recipient integrity metrics to help FNS evaluate and measure state performance.  We will use the findings to shape guidance to states on how best to combat these types of fraud.


  • FNS conducts a periodic study of errors in certifying WIC participants for benefits.  The most recent study found that in 2009, only about 3 percent of cases were improperly certified for benefits, and about 3 percent of benefits were paid in error.
  • FNS also periodically studies WIC vendor management, with ongoing analysis in the interim years to assess trends.  The study sends undercover investigators into a nationally-representative sample of WIC-authorized retailers to examine errors in charges for authorized foods.  The last study, released in the fall, found that the error rate in WIC is very low: only 1.47 percent of the $4.6 billion spent on food was the result of errors.

In School Meals:

  • FNS conducts a study of error rates in the school meals programs every five years, collecting data in school cafeterias and interviewing school staff and families that participate in the school meals programs and analyzing it rigorously.  The results of a study completed in 2005 showed that school meals needed improvement – error rates were too high.  Because the research was clear and based on sound methods, it gave FNS a roadmap for program improvement.
  • FNS used the evidence to strengthen our ability to continually improve program performance with guidance and technical assistance to schools, increased reviews and oversight, and expansion of direct certification, which reduces the opportunity for misreporting on paper applications.  A recent study showed that in School Year 2012-13, 89% of SNAP children were directly certified for free school meals, which was up from 69% just five years before.
  • The results of the next school meals integrity study are expected in late 2014, and will further guide our monitoring as well as program improvements.

FNS is committed to using strong research-based evidence to ensure its programs are meeting the needs of children and low-income people with the highest program integrity possible.  We are pleased that rigorous research shows that fraud and error rates are low, but there is more work to be done.  We will continue to use research to critically evaluate programs and to identify ways to strengthen them to support a healthier next generation.

Category/Topic: Food and Nutrition