Officials Seek to Refine Lunch Program Tallies

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More children around the country are signed up to receive free or reduced- price school lunches than are eligible, program officials say, a discrepancy that affects billions of dollars in federal grants as well as local school district policies.

U.S. Department of Agriculture officials, charged with overseeing the $5.5 billion program, say the problem of overenrollment has worsened over the years. In 1999, the most recent year for which data are available, 27 percent more students had enrolled in the free-lunch program than were eligible, based on Census figures. That figure has steadily risen since 1994, when data showed only 5 percent overenrollment.

Eric M. Bost, the undersecretary for the USDA's Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services, told a Senate appropriations subcommittee last week that he was working to make those numbers accurate, while not binding food-service departments with red tape.

"The real issue for us is ... to ensure that we don't put in place overwhelming administrative paperwork burdens that they're responsible for doing," he said. However, he said, a priority is to "maintain the integrity of the program."

The federal program, which has been in existence since 1946, is aimed at feeding disadvantaged students who, without regular and proper nutrition, may be in poor shape for learning. More than 27 million children in 97,700 schools get free or reduced-cost meals through the National School Lunch Program each day. Parents sign up for the program on their own, but are not required to provide proof of their income. Districts, though, are required by federal law to verify the incomes of a small sampling of families.

Influential Numbers

Along with determining who gets help with lunch and breakfast, the participation numbers are used as the basis for allocating a long list of federal grants and, in some cases, determining how that money is doled out on the local level. What's more, states and school districts often use the numbers to decide which students get other types of assistance.

The statistics for free and reduced-price lunches come into play, for instance, in Title I state grants, the federal program to aid disadvantaged students that at $10.4 billion this fiscal year is the largest federal initiative in K-12 education. Though Title I grants to states are based on Census figures, rather than the data on free and reduced-price school lunches, officials often parcel out the money to districts and to individual schools based on the lunch-program numbers.

Schools with greater numbers of students enrolled in the lunch program typically have the first claim on Title I money, which many times leaves no money for schools at the bottom of the list.

"This is a primary way of allocating resources," said Barry Sackin, the staff vice president for public policy for the Alexandria, Va.-based American School Food Service Association, which represents state and local food-service providers across the country.

Schools give students who qualify for lunch aid other help as well, including waiving athletic fees, paying for band uniforms, and providing after- school care, ASFSA members have told Mr. Sackin.

Effect on E- Rate

Another program that relies heavily on the subsidized-lunch numbers is the federal E-rate initiative, which provides discounts to school districts for telecommunications improvements, such as Internet access, phone service, and upgraded wiring.

Schools receive the discounts based on the number of students who qualify for the lunch program, said Mel Blackwell, a spokesman for Universal Services Administrative Co., the nonprofit group that administers the program for the Federal Communications Commission. Depending on the numbers, a school saves from 20 percent to 90 percent on technology- upgrade costs. A school with a high number of students receiving subsidized lunches would rank high on the list and likely get more funding, while a school low on the list could miss out on funding as the money available dwindles.

Other programs, such as teacher loan forgiveness, literacy and reading grants, and vocational and technical education funding all use the statistics on free and reduced-price lunches as a basis for deciding how to allocate resources.

Education Department officials too are concerned. "We hope to be able to work with them (the Agriculture Department) to develop a solution," said Education Department spokesman Dan Langan.

Undersecretary Bost said last week he wants to make sure children continue to be served and that a "fix" does not add to schools' burdens. "They're not in the business of determining eligibility," he said. "They're in the business of feeding and educating our children."

Mr. Bost said Congress might take steps to address the matter next year, when it is expected to work on the reauthorization of child-nutrition programs. But already, he said, pilot programs have begun testing ways to make the numbers more accurate.

Across the country, 22 districts are participating in programs to help verify eligibility for federally subsidized school lunches. In some states, parents must provide proof of their income when they sign up, while in other states, random checks are done. Currently, districts are required to verify 3 percent of their applicants' eligibility.

Why the Discrepancy?

There are many reasons why the numbers may be off, according to Paul McElwain, the director of the division of school and community nutrition for the Kentucky Department of Education. Students from low- income families often move from place to place and school to school. They usually do not make their applications for free and reduced-price school lunches inactive before they sign up for the program at a new school, he said.

"It's information that is not stable and [is] constantly changing, especially in border states or around an Army base," Mr. McElwain said. "In any one month, it is possible that you've got the same child counted three times."

In addition, a student may qualify one month, then, as the family gets back on its feet, no longer qualify. But often the application is still active, Mr. Sackin of the ASFSA said.

Despite inaccuracies in the numbers, Mr. Sackin and others say they do not believe that more free and reduced-price lunches are being served each day than should be. In fact, only 70 percent of students approved for the program eat school lunches, according to Mr. Sackin.

"Is the federal government subsidizing all these extra meals? The answer is, probably not," he said.

As students get older, fewer take part in the lunch program. "It's not cool to eat at school," Kentucky's Mr. McElwain said. "There is still a bit of a stigma attached to coming from a household that qualifies for free and reduced-price meals."

Mr. Sackin said he has been pleased by Undersecretary Bost's efforts, but said he's concerned Congress may jump in too quickly.

"Our worst fear is that Congress feels it has to react quickly, and it doesn't always do its best work that way," Mr. Sackin said. "This needs a thoughtful response, and the response cannot overwhelm the problem."

Vol. 21, Issue 28, Page 3

Published in Print: March 27, 2002, as Officials Seek to Refine Lunch Program Tallies
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