Wider Checks of School Lunch Eligibility Under Study

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Federal lawmakers are looking to fill their plates this session with a new helping of nutrition programs, and the main course is the school lunch program.

The federal nutrition programs, which also include breakfast and after-school programs as well as the Women, Infants, and Children supplemental-food program, are all up for their periodic, five-year reauthorization by Congress. The nearly $7 billion school lunch program, with close to 27 million children participating, is already being closely scrutinized on Capitol Hill even though the reauthorization process won't get serious for a few more months.

The National School Lunch Program provides free and reduced-price lunches in 99,000 American schools. For some students, those lunches are the one meal a day they can count on, children's advocacy groups say.

Some of those same groups worry that the Bush administration is looking to significantly tighten eligibility checks and in the process scare off some hungry and deserving students. The results could have a lasting impact not only on food programs, but also on billions of dollars that go to schools each year through other programs that use lunch statistics as a basis for distribution of federal money.

"The central principle has to be 'do no harm,' " said James D. Weill, the president of the Food Research and Action Center, or FRAC, based in Washington. "The evidence isn't strong enough to justify draconian solutions."

No Final Chapter

Eric M. Bost, who oversees the school lunch program for the Department of Agriculture, has repeatedly pledged that any new plans wouldn't overburden schools and would not make it more difficult for eligible children to use the program.

But Mr. Bost, the USDA's undersecretary for food, nutrition, and consumers services, has also expressed concerns about students' getting benefits under the National School Lunch Program when, based on their families' household income, they are in fact not eligible. A 1999 USDA study found about 21 percent of those enrolled in the free-lunch program were not eligible.

Though the USDA has not formally announced proposals to require parents to provide proof of income, children's advocacy and school nutrition groups say the word is out anyway that the department intends to do so. Embedded in the bureaucratic argot of President Bush's newly released budget proposal for fiscal 2004 was reinforcement for that perception. In the budget documents, the administration promised to "enhance program integrity in child-nutrition programs by expanding assessment of certification accuracy."

Currently, parents sign students up for the program and declare their income, but don't have to provide verification. Several months later, school districts typically audit about 3 percent of applications and request more detailed information.

But Jean Daniel, a spokeswoman for the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service, said Mr. Bost had not decided on a plan of action, despite the certainty of advocacy groups and their reactions. In addition, she said, the USDA is conducting several pilot programs to test a variety of stricter verification methods, and the agency is awaiting the outcome of studies on those measures.

"The final chapter has not been completed yet," Ms. Daniel said.

Some groups say they are doubtful the eligibility problem is as extensive as the USDA contends.

Zoe Neuberger, a policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington think tank, has studied the 1999 numbers used by the USDA and believes that the analysis is flawed. The 1999 study matched annual U.S. Census income data and compared it with monthly data for enrollment in the school lunch program. The result is an apples-to-oranges comparison, she argued.

"USDA is relying on this faulty data ... and momentum has been gathering to make what could amount to some sweeping changes in the program," Ms. Neuberger said.

But Ms. Daniel said those numbers are being used only as "indicators, not measures, ... and those indicators have increased over time."

'Snowball Effect'

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and other groups have estimated that a million eligible students could be driven out of the lunch program by universal-documentation requirements that could require, for instance, Social Security cards or proof of income for all participants.

Some eligible students may have families that work in an undocumented, cash system and don't get pay stubs, said Barry Sackin, a vice president of the American School Food Service Association, based in Alexandria, Va. Some parents may be illiterate not only in English, but also in their native languages, he said.

Some otherwise eligible parents may not have Social Security numbers, or may have a fear of the government and of the consequences of volunteering information, Mr. Sackin continued. Others have confidentiality and privacy concerns, he said.

If students do drop out of the lunch program, it could also affect the allocation of billions of dollars schools receive each year. The free and reduced-price lunch program's participation numbers are used in allocating a long list of federal grants and often for determining how money is given out on the state and local levels.

For example, distribution at the state level of grants under Title I, the Department of Education's flagship program of aid for disadvantaged students, is based on free- and reduced-price lunch statistics. The same goes for the E-rate program, which provides discounts on school telecommunications improvements. Schools with more students in the lunch program typically have first claim on the money.

"The snowball effect on schools is far greater than just kids' being driven out of the program," Mr. Sackin said.

Concerns about the numbers aren't the only worries voiced by nutrition advocacy groups. The president's 2004 fiscal budget plan didn't include new money for the entitlement program. Some groups were hoping to see extra money to expand existing pilot programs.

"We were seeking a billion dollars in program expansion," said Edward M. Cooney, the executive director of the Washington-based Congressional Hunger Center, a nonprofit anti-hunger leadership training organization, and a former special assistant on nutrition in the Clinton administration. But Bush administration officials, he said, are "not unsympathetic."

Mr. Cooney said he sees a good-faith effort by Mr. Bost and his office of the USDA to seek advice from outside groups. Though the question of overcertification for school lunches has received a lot of recent attention, Mr. Cooney said other problems need to be addressed, including upping reimbursement rates for schools so they can serve healthier lunches.

Fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains often cost more than some of the more unhealthy lunch choices, he said. "We've got to have a higher reimbursement rate," Mr. Cooney said.

Those who walk through school cafeterias daily say the federal lunch program can literally be a lifesaver for some students. It would be a shame if some students who needed food didn't get it, said Bruce M. Whitehead, the principal at Hellgate Intermediate School in Missoula, Mont.

"Our school nurse has had kids come in who were dizzy and faint," he said. "I've talked to them and found out there was no food in the house to feed them."

Vol. 22, Issue 24, Pages 19, 21

Published in Print: February 26, 2003, as Wider Checks of School Lunch Eligibility Under Study
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