Concerned that too many students might be getting free or reduced-price lunches, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is considering changing the reporting and record-keeping requirements of the National School Lunch Program (NSLP).

Such a move could have ramifications far beyond school cafeterias, however, because lunch status determines eligibility for a wide array of federal programs. Changes—especially more stringent procedures—could undermine access to more than $15 billion in federal education funding, including billions earmarked specifically for school technology.

Over the years, federal officials acknowledge, lunch status has become the benchmark for programs having little or nothing to do with nutrition. “This issue is complicated, because certification data [are] used to distribute billions of dollars in education aid, telecommunications funds, and other funding,” Eric M. Bost, Undersecretary of Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), testified March 20 before the Senate Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, and Related Agencies.

Now, some federal officials say evidence exists suggesting too many students receive subsidized lunches. The USDA’s Office of Inspector General reportedly found that in one state—which the agency did not name—nearly 20 percent of free or reduced-price meal applications selected for verification couldn’t be verified.

Also, data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey suggests that fewer children are eligible for NSLP than are registered, USDA officials said.

In response, the FNS division of the USDA—the federal agency that oversees the program—has embarked upon a series of corrective steps.

In its most recent action, FNS has proposed changing the way school districts verify which students should receive free or reduced-price meals.

Currently, school districts send forms home for parents to fill out. School officials then approve or deny the applications based on income and other factors reported on the form. Next, school officials must verify a small sample of those applications by contacting parents and requestingquesting copies of income tax statements or similar documents to keep on file.

FNS proposes that school districts be required to report their verification information to state authorities by March 1 each year. To facilitate this reporting, FNS would provide an electronic “data collection instrument” to report the data.

School districts would have to report:

  • The number of children approved for free and reduced-price meal benefits based on direct certification, income applications, and categorically eligible applications;

  • The method of verification sample selection;

  • The number of applications selected for verification;

  • The number of students on selected applications;

  • The number of students approved for free-meal benefits and reduced-price meal benefits whose eligibility for benefits were reduced or terminated as the result of verification;

  • The number of non-respondents; and

  • The number of students reinstated for free or reduced-price meal benefits, as of Feb. 15 of each year.

The state would have to report to FNS by April 15 each year.

In addition to this proposed rule-making, the agency is working to make local and state school officials understand the magnitude of the certification problem so they can be more proactive in solving it.

Educators who spoke with eSchool News said using the free and reduced-price meal criteria to determine educational technology funding is flawed.

“I applaud the USDA for trying to run a tighter ship, but I think the larger problem is with tying eRate funding levels only to free [and] reduced counts. There really should be a multidimensional analysis of a district’s need,” said Charlie Reisinger, director of technology for the Penn Manor School District in Pennsylvania.

Some educators say the real problem is under-reporting, not over-reporting, eligibility. They are skeptical whether the changes suggested by FNS really will improve the reporting process.

Nancy Lotze, technology and curriculum director for the Selkirk School District in Washington, said many parents in her district qualify for the NSLP but choose not to apply because they are too proud to ask for what they perceive as “hand-outs.”

“Our issue is how to get parents to see the connection between access to federal programs and money and a service they are eligible for,” Lotze said. “Under-reporting affects our eRate discount as well as eligibility and funding levels for other federal programs. It is unfortunate that the level we report doesn’t consider the pride that many working families have in areas such as ours.”

Robert Hudson, technology director for the Hawthorn Elementary District 73 in Illinois, finds that older students tend to attach a stigma to the school lunch program.

“As a result, some parents of the older students do not apply for free and reduced-price lunches. This has had an impact on our ability to secure the appropriate eRate funding reimbursement level,” Hudson said. “The proposed changes still require application by parents. Therefore, this problem will likely still exist.”

Links:

Proposed Rules for Free and Reduced-Price Meals
http://www.fns.usda.gov/cnd/Lunch/Governance/Interim_Proposed/FRPVerif.pdf