Budget & Finance

Districts Anxious About Plunge in Meal-Program Applicants

By Daarel Burnette II — October 28, 2020 6 min read
Karina Galan, a school bus driver with Mt. Diablo Unified School District, carries several bags of pre-packaged meals to distribute to a family in Concord, Calif. The district is stressing to parents the importance of filling out applications for participation in the free and reduced-price meals program at a time when the number of formal applications have dropped off.
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Despite the nation’s growing poverty rate, district administrators say significantly fewer students this year are applying for free and reduced-price meals. The sharp drop--likely the result of the way districts are administering the program during the coronavirus pandemic--could place at risk millions of dollars in aid used to provide in-school and out-of-school academic and social services.

That’s because participation in the program is used as a proxy for poverty levels in many state education funding formulas, as well as by philanthropic organizations, researchers, and others.

“There’s a general understanding that the poverty level across the nation has increased due to people losing their jobs and homes because of the economic impact of COVID, but if these forms are not submitted, it looks like poverty in schools has decreased,” said Jonas Zuckerman, the president of the National Association of ESEA State Program Administrators and the director of Title I services in Wisconsin’s department of public instruction. “What story are we telling with this data? It fails the smell test.”

NAESPA’s members have fielded panicked calls from administrators in recent weeks who are worried that, with fewer students qualified for free and reduced-price meals, they will receive less federal aid next year. Zuckerman and several other federal funding experts said the numbers do not weigh heavily in the federal Title I formula for aid to disadvantaged students.

But 23 states solely rely on free and reduced-price meal forms to calculate how much extra money districts should get for serving large concentrations of low-income students, according to a recent paper by the Reason Foundation, a libertarian group that pushes for the overhaul of state funding strategies.

Without a significant change in how state funding formulas are calculated, districts in many states risk losing poverty-based aid to pay for psychologists, after-school care, academic intervention, and year-end bonuses intended to entice teachers to work in low-income schools.

A woman picks up several meals while her daughter waits behind her in Concord, Calif. on Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020.

Pandemic’s Disruption

For more than half a century, districts have required parents and caretakers to fill out forms about their employment status and income level as part of the process for providing free and reduced-price school meals. The forms are an easy way to tally how many children live in households with incomes below 185 percent of the poverty level without violating privacy laws. More than 29 million children today qualify for free and reduced-price meals, more than half of America’s student body.

But since the start of school shutdowns due to the pandemic, districts have been providing meals to any student who asks for them, thanks to a series of waivers granted earlier this year by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and recently extended through the end of this school year.

“Parents are asking us, ‘Why do I need to fill out this application when all my kid has to do is walk to the street corner and get the food for free?” said Lisa Gonzales, the chief business officer for the Mt. Diablo Unified School District, a 36,000-student suburban system outside San Francisco. After years of witnessing a steady uptick in student poverty, the district this year has seen the number of families filling out free and reduced-priced meal forms drop from 44 percent of the district’s enrollment to 33 percent. It now risks losing more than $2.6 million in federal and state aid, according to Gonzales.

Other administrators theorize that this year’s political climate has made many immigrant parents who might qualify afraid of giving out personal information to any government agency, including school districts.

Around the country, anxious administrators in recent weeks have scrambled to explain to parents during morning announcements, local radio ads, press releases, and robocalls to homes that the forms are confidential and aren’t just used for cafeteria services. Some have placed flashing banners on their websites directing parents to FAQs and links to the form, which, they point out, only takes minutes to complete.

“We’re trying to explain to parents that breakfast and lunch is just a small snippet of what these forms are used for,” said Melanie Duerkop, the director of federal programs for Cabot, Ark., public schools, a 10,000-student district outside Little Rock. More than 4,000 students typically qualify for free and reduced-price meals, Duerkop said. But the district this year has seen almost a 25 percent drop in the number of students identified as low-income, even though the local unemployment and homelessness rate has gone up.

Many districts are worried that, in addition to losing aid, they will have to restructure their staffing at Title I schools since districts have historically used the meal counts to determine where to dispatch support services for low-income children.

By way of reassurance, Zuckerman and other experts said the federal government relies most heavily on Small Area Income and Poverty U.S. Census Bureau estimates to determine how much Title I aid districts receive and that the number of children who qualify for free and reduced-priced meals is a negligible factor in the formula.

Zuckerman also said that districts can use local Medicaid and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program data to determine how to distribute federal aid among schools next year, a point NAESPA plans to communicate to state administrators in the coming weeks.

Alondra Gonzales, 4, and Matthew Ramirez, 4, carry their meals in a small wagon back to their house in Concord, Calif. on Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020.

Fiscal Anxiety

The drop in applications during the coronavirus-driven recession adds yet another twist to what’s been a financially chaotic school year for low-income and majority Black and Latino school districts. These property-poor districts are heavily reliant on state sales and income tax revenue, now hammered by the recession, and risk losing up to 20 percent of their revenue this spring when legislatures reconvene.

Meanwhile, because of a political standoff, Congress has yet to provide the second round of relief many of these districts were hoping would help get them through the rest of this school year without having to lay off teachers and other staff members.

Low-income districts, many of which are conducting remote learning this year, also have seen a drop in overall attendance and enrollment, other crucial measures used to determine how much money districts receive.

“This is just a really weird year for data,” Zuckerman said.

School funding gurus for the last several years have been searching for a new way to measure levels of poverty since districts have historically struggled getting older low-income students to return the forms. Many districts stopped annually collecting them after a recent change to the way districts with large populations of low-income students are reimbursed for meals.

But this year’s dramatic slide in applications seems to be the direct result of the USDA’s waivers. In addition, fewer students overall are taking advantage of school lunch programs where remote learning is taking place, according to Kelley McDonough, the No Kid Hungry Campaign’s senior program manager for best practices.

“The challenge of collecting these forms isn’t necessarily new, it’s just significantly more challenging now,” McDonough said.

McDonough and her team recently posted on their website several strategies for districts to more effectively convince parents to fill out the form, including altering the headlines on the form, being explicit about how the forms benefit families aside from school lunch meals, and blasting out links to the form on social media.

“Any time you send a form home,” McDonough said, “you’re sending it on a wish and a prayer.”

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