Food and Nutrition Service relies on wisdom of the crowd for new online application

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is making it easier for 100,000 schools and 20,000 school districts to certify students to receive free or reduced meal benefits.

USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service reimagined and standardized the prototype application process for school systems to use.

Ed Harper, the Food and Nutrition Service’s director of the Office of Program Integrity for Child Nutrition Programs, said building a better application started by taking advantage of the crowd.

“We started with an open federal prize competition under the America Competes Act,” Harper said. “What we tasked the public essentially to do was build us an online application with essentially just the required components by law and by regulation, and then use their imagination, their technical experience and their design expertise to come up with something really innovative and target what we know to be deficient about current online applications as far as reducing hassle.”

The Food and Nutrition Service won the Lab Developer’s Award from ACT-IAC.
(Photo courtesy: ACT-IAC and David Keith)

After receiving 44 submissions, USDA FNS awarded 10 winners a combined $50,000 in prize money.

“From that competition, we had some great entries and that was basically phase-one of the project,” he said. “We then worked with a small team of tech industry experts from the Presidential Innovation Fellows program to take the best ideas from our contest and wrap those into USDA’s prototype that we released on FNS’ website last November.”

Harper said USDA FNS created both an online version and a paper application for those families without easy access to computers.

“One of our goals was to fit the application on two sides on a single sheet of paper, so that’s pretty brief. Most schools have pretty brief paper applications as well,” he said. “The paper application requires applicants consult the instructions. One of the things we found from focus groups is applicants tend not to read the instructions. So our web-based application prototype doesn’t just take the paper model and put it on a screen, but instead it guides applicants through a series of questions in an interview format that probes for income types, household members that need to be included. There also are added checks, prompts and pop-up help at the applicants’ fingertips.”

Executive Editor Jason Miller discusses this story on Federal Drive with Tom Temin

The approach that the Food and Nutrition Service used earned them a “Dynamite” award in the Incubator category — which recognizes not–yet-deployed innovation with the greatest potential to enhance services to citizens or government operations — of ACT-IAC’s Igniting Innovation competition.

Harper said the biggest improvement in the online application is the guided interview.

“It takes some of the guesswork out for parents,” he said. “There are other features in the application that make USDA stand apart from a typical online product. One is the always accessible help features, pop-up help on common and uncommon terms. The Presidential Innovation Fellows put us in touch with the U.S. Digital Service, whose web design standards are designed to be easy for individuals who are accessing a web page easy to comprehend, using fonts, buttons and spacing that are intuitive and easy to process.”

Another major change is that the application is mobile-friendly.

Harper said a lot of low-income households who are eligible for free or reduced price meals may not have access to laptops or desktops, but often have smartphones, so the application will reformat for a smartphone.

Harper said the goal was to create this prototype and make it available for school districts to use free of charge. He said school districts can easily integrate the code with their front- and back-end systems.

“We are monitoring the uptake closely. School districts can’t just instantly change their systems. That will take a little bit of time,” he said. “Some states have put out RFPs looking for contractors to build applications for them that are based on our model. We also are trying to persuade some of the major companies to make changes to their products as well and adopt some of the integrity features from our model into their base products so when they are reaching out to new customers or offering upgrades to existing customers, the kinds of features in our model will be rolled out in that way.”