Starting next fall, the Agriculture Department will require the nation's 91,000 school districts to verify that children receiving free or reduced price lunches are eligible for the meals, according to a rule published Friday in the Federal Register.

Now students from a family of four earning $12,090 or less annually are eligible for free lunches, and an annual family income of $17,210 or less entitles a student to a reduced price meal. About 15 million of the 23 million children in the school lunch program receive free or reduced price meals.

Last year USDA began requiring families seeking free or reduced price school lunches to fill out an application listing the names and Social Security numbers of all adult household members. In Friday's rule USDA "strongly encourages" school districts to verify 3 percent or 3,000 of their applications this year. Next year, they must perform such verification.

To verify the accuracy of an application, school authorities may ask for pay check or welfare check stubs or notices of unemployment, alimony, child support or veterans' benefits. If such documentation is inadequate, school authorities may ask the applicant for the name of a landlord, employer, social worker or other "collateral contact" who can verify an applicant's claims.

If a household refuses to provide verification, the children may no longer receive subsidized meals.