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Congress Should Shore Up School Lunch Reliability

By David N. Bass — September 10, 2010 5 min read
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From retired military generals to Food Network celebrity Rachael Ray to first lady Michelle Obama, school lunch is on everyone’s mind nowadays. And no wonder. With the Great Recession still hitting the family pocketbook hard, more families than ever are turning to school-provided meals for relief. Data from U.S. Food and Nutrition Services show that participation in the free and reduced-priced lunch program jumped 6.3 percent to a record high in 2009. More than 30 million students receive subsidized meals every day.

Rising food costs have put a strain on school districts as well, prompting President Barack Obama to include $100 million in additional funding for the program in his economic-stimulus bill and propose another $10 billion for school nutrition programs during the next decade. In addition, the Child Nutrition Act, which governs the federally subsidized free and reduced-priced lunch and breakfast programs, is up for reauthorization this year. After an investigative report by USA Today revealed lax food-safety standards for school lunches, food quality is fast becoming the top priority for lawmakers.

But elected officials should be weighing another aspect, too: the dependability of the program as an indicator of poverty. School districts often rely on participation rates in free and reduced-price meals as a proxy for socioeconomic status, using it to allocate resources and assign students to certain schools. The federal government’s evaluation programs—including the National Assessment of Educational Progress and those called for under the No Child Left Behind Act—also routinely employ school lunch subsidies as a poverty indicator, as do academic researchers.

Could the results be skewed? Recent data suggest the possibility. The school food entitlements are targeted to families within a certain range of the federal poverty threshold. Unlike other food entitlements, parents are required only to self-report income on the application and needn’t provide proof, such as a pay stub or W-2 form. Because of this, the potential for error, whether intentional or by mistake, is real.

The only mechanism in place to ensure that unqualified families aren’t misreporting their incomes is a requirement that each school district verify a targeted 3 percent pool of participants annually to ensure they’re receiving the correct benefit level. Officials terminate applicants’ benefits if they don’t respond. If applicants respond with evidence that shows too high or low an income, officials reduce, raise, or terminate their benefits accordingly.

Verification summaries from the nation’s 10 largest school districts for the 2007-08 school year suggest that fraud does exist. All but one district—the Chicago public schools—had rates of reduced or repealed benefits above 70 percent. Most of those benefit reductions and repeals were due to participants’ failure to respond to the mailing, which automatically revoked their subsidies.

The numbers don’t mean that three-fourths of participants are cheating, as other factors must be taken into account. But they do cast doubt on the reliability of participation rates. Even so, policymakers have shied away from taking a tough look at the program. That’s understandable given the issue at hand—feeding needy children—but that factor doesn’t change the possibility of fraud and skewed results.

Beyond the suggestion of cheating in the annual verifications, an issue brief by Mathematica Policy Research published in February 2009 found that 15 percent of students enrolled in breakfast and lunch programs received more benefits than they were eligible for, and that 7.5 percent received fewer. Mathematica estimated the total cost for the errors at around $1 billion annually. Mathematica’s full study on the issue, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (which oversees the school lunch program), argued that requiring applicants to submit proof of income would hurt needy children.

Bringing greater accountability to the school lunch program shouldn’t be controversial. Unfortunately, it is, and not only because of the politics of poverty.”

Despite evidence of fraud in the program, the federal government has come down hard on districts that try to weed out cheating. In 2008, school board members in Charlotte-Mecklenburg—which runs neck and neck with Wake County as North Carolina’s largest school district—toyed with the idea of requesting a more thorough verification of student eligibility in the lunch program. Efforts came crashing down when the Agriculture Department threatened to cut off the district’s $34 million lunch-program subsidy for the 2007-08 school year if it proceeded with a full verification.

The federal law governing the school lunch program does appear to prohibit participant audits beyond the mandated 3 percent. But that’s a component of school lunch that lawmakers need to revamp as part of the program’s reauthorization. They’ve already taken tentative steps in that direction. A provision in the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, at press time still under consideration in Congress, would require schools with high eligibility-error rates to review their work for accuracy. While not specifically authorizing a full-fledged audit or requiring that parents provide proof of income, the revision would at least make some strides to ease errors.

Bringing greater accountability to the school lunch program shouldn’t be controversial. Unfortunately, it is, and not only because of the politics of poverty. The program is the product of a political alliance between agricultural-area Republicans and metropolitan-area Democrats, which means critics are few and far between. Even so, advocates for both efficient government and needy children should join hands to, at a minimum, increase the verification ability of local school districts. Better, schools should be allowed to ask for proof of income, just as the federal food-stamp program requires.

This year, lawmakers have a golden opportunity to increase the school lunch program’s reliability. Given the amount of taxpayer dollars devoted to the program, and the range of policies and research based on it, they can’t afford to do nothing.

A version of this article appeared in the September 15, 2010 edition of Education Week as Congress Must Shore Up School Lunch Reliability

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