Thursday, September 5, 2013

Why no free lunch?

You may well have caught the news earlier this week that the Boston Public Schools are offering free lunch to all of their students, regardless of parental income:
The meal program, more than a year in the making, is part of an experimental federal initiative that aims to make it easier for students from low-income families to receive free meals by eliminating the need to fill out paperwork, including potentially invasive questions about income.
Cities such as Atlanta, Detroit, and Chicago have been or will be participating in the free-meal program. Starting next school year, the program will be open to any school district across the country with high concentrations of students from low-income families. The cost of the free meals will be covered by the federal government.

Sounds great, right? Everyone eats, no one gets singled out, there's less paperwork, and the fed is picking up the bill.
So naturally, several people have asked, "Why not Worcester?"
Turns out that it's not at all that simple.
The way that this works is that Boston is counting as "free" all kids whose families qualify for food stamps; in all districts, a qualification for food stamps automatically gets any kids in the public schools free lunch without anyone needing to fill out any further paperwork.
We know from our own experience, though, that there are families that qualify for food stamps who don't get them. They are, however, willing to get their kids lunch at school for free. Those kids are missed as "free" if you don't ask separately.
Note also the number of families that either have been or well could be cut from food stamps due to federal sequestration. That would SEVERELY cut the number of kids that are directly certified.
And that matters because we don't only use our count of free and reduced lunch for lunches. On this blog, I reference it for Title I, for E-rate, for grants, for all sorts of things. So having a very accurate count really matters, well beyond getting kids fed. Thus the urging these first weeks of school to get those nutrition forms in! We need them!
The problem is that by signing up for this program, Boston will not be counting kids for the next three years; they're tied to the current rate of kids registered through food stamps. And that's it.Any expansion of those numbers will not be seen, as they aren't counting, and these years will be lost in their tally of the kids.
Further, it turns out that the Fed isn't necessarily covering all costs, as the Globe has it above. Right now, DESE is telling districts that it is a formula, that it's the total of the kids that are directly certified multiplied by 1.6. I haven't done the math on that, but I'm pretty sure that wouldn't cover all of the kids in Worcester.
All of which is to say this:

  • please return your school nutrition form
  • if your family qualifies, please let us know through the form
  • let's keep an eye on this to see if they work it out in a way to feed more kids without socking the district in a myriad of other ways.
Because feeding kids is important.
As I say all the time, we're only as good as our information. Thanks to School Nutrition for once again coming through on this.

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