School lunches open Pandora’s Box
October 10, 2011
By DANIEL BLACKBURN
Clarification: The state’s report on Cayucos Elementary’s percentage of students on the free or reduced lunch program appears to be incorrect as the report misstates the number of students in the school and the 100 percent is based on that number. The report appears to be correct in relation to other numbers except for the countywide number. It is also questionable as it uses Cayucos’ incorrect percentage to form an overall percentage. Cayucos Elementary Superintendent James J. Brescia said 25.8 percent of his students are on the free or reduced lunch program.
School lunches are big business — particularly if Uncle Sam is picking up the tab. And the increasingly imaginative quest by California school officials to qualify for more and more federal dollars is shaping a system that some are calling fraudulent.
Wealthy districts are encouraged to compete with poor ones for the dollars available, as district officials seek to maximize the numbers of their needy students. Rigid oversight is virtually non-existent. And it’s not small potatoes. At stake are $1.86 billion in currently budgeted funds in the federal free and reduced meal program, $151.2 million in state dollars — amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars annually for individual districts.
In addition to funds provided for free and reduced meals, many federal, state and private funding programs depend on the percentage of a district’s students approved for free and reduced lunches. These numbers are used to determine which districts receive monies slated to help impoverished students.
In California, there are 20 different grants, entitlements or appropriations available to school districts — some of which look at higher percentages of needy students when determining which school with more than 40 percent free lunches should receive limited grant monies.
For example, for schools to be eligible for the $25 million that Microsoft provides in technology vouchers each year, at least 40 percent of the attending students must be “eligible to receive free or reduced-priced meals through the National School Lunch Program,” according to the California Department of Education website.
“Each profile depends on how the law was written that created the fund whether it is a grant, entitlement or appropriation,” said Tina Jung, a public information officer with the California Department of Education. “All children who qualify do not get free lunches.”
And while San Luis Obispo County school officials contend students listed as eligible who are not impoverished do not take advantage of the free lunches, some oceanfront districts such as Cambria are ranked higher on the poverty scale than the community of Paso Robles.
Coast Unified School District (CUSD) Superintendent Chris Adams’ reportedly has told some parents in his district that as many as 90 percent of district students qualify for free or reduced lunches. The percentage compiled by the state for CUSD is 54.9 percent.
The U.S. Census Bureau reported the average income in Cambria in 2009 at $89,903. Families earning incomes of under $50,000 make up only 10.1 percent of the Cambria population.
By contrast, Templeton Unified considers only 13.2 percent of its students to be qualified for the free and reduced lunches, according to the California Department of Education website.
When the names of Adams’ two children turned up last week on the district’s free lunch list, it generated questions about the requirements to participate in the program. Adams and his wife, Julie, report a monthly income of $26,000, and would not qualify for such a program.
But the only answer sought by the district was the source of the “leak” of the Adams’ signed lunch application.
School board trustees immediately launched an investigation, retaining Sacramento attorney Roman Munoz to track down the initiator. Munoz put a muzzle on CUSD officials, but not before Adams angrily denied that either of his children ever received a free lunch from the district, despite claims of people with access to the list. Munoz later described the inclusion of the superintendent’s youngsters on the list as “a clerical error.”
Adams said an explanation of the matter was “simple” but that he could not discuss it because of the district investigation — which he demanded.
CSUD Board President Cindy Fratto declined to comment on the matter. But the state’s education chief told his staff last week that he has an interest in investigating the matter, also.
Whatever its source, the leaked form has put the spotlight on methodology used to determine the number of impoverished students in any given school district. Districts by law must provide access to free, reduced and full price lunches for all students, but can be reimbursed the cost under the federal and state programs.
The National School Lunch Program is a federally funded program overseen by the U.S. Department of Education, and administered in California by its education department’s Nutrition Services Division. The lunch program is open to all children, but only free or reduced in price for those whose income level qualifies them for inclusion in the program.
For example, a family of six with household annual earnings of $38,389 would qualify for free meals, snacks and milk. A family of four with an annual income of $40,793 would qualify for reduced price meals and snacks.
State data suggests that 41.8 percent of San Luis Obispo County school children qualify for free or reduced lunches — right at the level required to qualify for reimbursement. The higher percentage garners the highest amount of funding.
California counties with the highest percentage of claimed eligibility are Merced, 75.7 percent Tulare, 74.8 percent; and Imperial, 72.6. Lowest include Placer, 25 percent; Marin, 26.6 percent; and El Dorado, 31 percent.
More than 3.4 million students were eligible for free or reduced price meals at California public schools last year – a nine percent increase from two years earlier, according to state figures. Nearly every county in the state experienced a substantial increase in the number of eligible students during the past three years, according to the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health.
Statewide, 281,696 more public school students became eligible. Nearly 60 percent of all public school students last year qualified, according to the foundation’s statistics. Of those, 84 percent had family incomes at or below $28,665 – 133 percent the federal poverty level for a family of four – making them eligible for free meals.
At the center of the free and reduced lunch debate is a federal form for qualification — one page in a large pile of papers distributed to parents at the start of every school year. Federal law requires that school administrators make the form available to all parents. The task of actually filling out the form to apply for free or reduced lunches and other meals is completely voluntary, as it asks for income data and other private information, such as social security numbers.
But district officials make concerted efforts to encourage all parents to fill out the lunch form, leaving to those same officials the interpretation of the resulting information, who than send numbers to the California Department of Education with almost no oversight. And some parents allege that this “encouragement” often takes the form of intimidation.
State education officials defend the current practices.
“I think all districts nationwide encourage families to fill out the applications, so that they have on record who is qualified for free and reduced fee meals,” said Janet Jendrejack, manager of the state department of education’s Nutrition Services Division. “Some districts even have application parties to encourage everyone to fill out the forms.”
Youngsters whose parents’ income disqualifies them for free or reduced lunches can still pay for their lunch, and the district receives a stipend per meal. Parents can decline to participate in the lunch program.
Jendrejack said department personnel “did check” with the CSUD district’s food services supervisors and were told that Adams “did fill out the forms” but that his children “never got free lunches.”
Jendrejack also expressed dismay about the Adams’ form being divulged publicly: “That is a matter of confidentiality. That’s what our focus is. It’s a huge concern.”
She had high praise for Adams himself: “We here at the department think that Superintendent Adams is setting a good example.”
Julian Crocker, superintendent of schools for San Luis Obispo County, told CalCoastNews last week that it is his “understanding from districts is that it is fairly standard practice to ask all parents to fill out that form, understanding that many parents don’t exactly qualify for free and reduced.”
But Crocker said some parents whose children would qualify for the free or reduced lunch programs don’t fill out the forms “for whatever reason. He complained that “what they (those parents) don’t understand is that the district uses that information for other things, other than free and reduced lunches.
“So it’s just easier to just ask everyone to fill them out. That way, over the years districts have been able to get that information from parents, and it does present a way for districts to get additional federal money. I don’t think it’s subterfuge,” Crocker said.