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Education Reporter

Free Lunches Feed School Coffers
The Chicago Tribune incited much outrage last month when it reported that a West Side elementary school principal prohibits students from bringing lunch from home. Little Village Academy principal Elsa Carmona told the reporter her intention was to protect students from their own poor nutritional choices.

Reporter Monica Eng was interviewing Little Village students in the cafeteria about the new healthier lunches being served in Chicago schools this year when young Fernando Dominguez took an impromptu poll of his lunch mates. "Who thinks the lunch is not good enough?" the seventh-grader shouted out in Spanish and in English.

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Dozens of fellow students raised their hands and began shouting with young Dominguez, "We should bring our own lunch! We should bring our own lunch! We should bring our own lunch!"

The students went on to explain that they had to take a school-provided lunch or go hungry because home-packed lunches weren't allowed. Some students took a cafeteria lunch, but still went hungry, because they threw most of it in the trash.

Principal Carmona said she instituted the policy six years ago after she noticed kids who brought "bottles of soda and flaming hot chips" on field trips for lunch. Kids with allergies or medical issues are exempted from the rule.

"Nutrition wise, it is better for the children to eat at the school," said Carmona. "It's about the nutrition and the excellent quality food that they are able to serve (in the cafeteria). It's milk versus a Coke."

Carmona said the no-sack-lunch policy was fairly common in Chicago, but could not name any other schools that employed it. A Chicago Public Schools spokeswoman said she did not know how many schools prohibit packed lunches, and that individual principals make that decision.

"While there is no formal policy, principals use common sense judgment based on their individual school environments," Monique Bond wrote in an email. "In this case, this principal is encouraging healthier choices and attempting to make an impact that extends beyond the classroom."

In the case of Little Village Academy students, more than 99.9% of the 733 students are low-income and 99.6% are Hispanic. The fact that most, if not all, of the students receive free lunches may explain why parents at the school have not felt compelled to complain about the cafeteria lunch mandate — they don't have to pay the $2.25 daily lunch fee. (Students who qualify for reduced-price lunches pay no more than 40 cents per meal.)

Still, Little Village parent Erica Martinez said that because some of the kids don't like the cafeteria food, "it would be a good idea if they could bring their lunch so they could at least eat something."

But parent Miguel Medina said he thinks the policy is a good one. "The school food is very healthy, and when they bring the food from home, there is no control over the food."

Who should have control over something as basic as what kids eat is the central issue, of course. "This is such a fundamental infringement on parental responsibility," said J. Justin Wilson, a senior researcher at the Washington-based Center for Consumer Freedom.

Many people agreed, and the story struck a nerve with a nation already debating personal responsibility and choice versus government intervention and regulation. The media attention and public outcry eventually persuaded the Little Village principal to reverse course, and Carmona now says she doesn't impose the policy.

Amidst all the controversy, an obvious question remained unasked: Do schools have incentives beyond the nanny-state impulse to heavily promote — or require, in the case of Little Village Academy — school lunch participation? In fact, they do.

The federal government pays the district a set fee for each free, reduced-price, and even every paid lunch a student takes ($2.72, $2.32, and 26 cents, respectively). State governments are required to contribute matching funds equal to at least 30% of their 1980 federal grant amount; local governments often contribute additional funds.

The local food supplier receives a portion of those reimbursement funds, typically around $1. Schools use the rest of the money to pay for food service equipment, administrative costs, and wages (many cafeteria workers are unionized and make a lot more money than you might expect).

Local school authorities set the prices students pay for full- and reduced-price lunches. Schools are supposed to operate their meal service as non-profit programs, but that doesn't necessarily equate to a lean operation that gets the most bang for the taxpayers' buck. Schools may not show a profit per se, but they may direct food-service subsidies towards the expenses of administrative departments that peripherally support cafeteria operations (such as human resources and accounting), thus reducing expenses in other departments. Additionally, schools often pay inflated union wages to cafeteria workers. When the wastefulness of kids throwing away large amounts of food is factored in, it's not exactly an efficient operation.

Moreover, schools have plenty of financial incentives for increasing the number of students who receive free and reduced-price lunches. That is because free and reduced-price lunch percentages are commonly used to quantify how many low-income students attend a school, and those numbers determine how much Title I funding a school gets.

Schools are also assigned an "E-rate" based on how many students receive free and reduced-price lunches. An "E-rate" refers to the discount schools and libraries get on telecommunication services. At 20- to 90% off regular service rates, these discounts can be substantial.

If a school has at least 50% of children eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, it also receives the highest possible allowance for after-school snacks served through the National School Lunch Program and meals served through the Child and Adult Care Food Program.

Some predominantly low-income schools also get government funding to serve free meals to any child in the community during the summertime, whether or not they attend school there, or anywhere, for that matter. Presumably, that funding provides more summer income for school employees who administer the program as well.

Clearly schools have numerous incentives besides "good nutrition" to bulk up the numbers of students receiving free and reduced-price lunches. Most school administrators are probably pretty savvy with regard to maximizing available funding, but if they are new to the game, the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) and its affiliates stand ready to help.

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According to the Philanthropedia website, FRAC "leads national efforts to improve and expand the reach of programs such as food stamps, school lunch and breakfast, after school and summer food, and the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program." FRAC has been instrumental in driving legislation and filing lawsuits that have expanded food stamp and other food programs to millions of people since 1970.

In accord with their mission, FRAC provides a manual to help school administrators "optimize" federal reimbursement rates and "leverage additional funding" by maximizing the number of students who receive free and reduced-price lunches. An example in the manual shows how schools that miss the opportunity to classify just 75 students at the free rate and 25 students at the reduced-price rate forgo $63,090 in federal reimbursements over the course of one school year.

One way FRAC advises schools to "aggressively" qualify students for free meals is to use "direct certification" for students already receiving food stamp benefits or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Those families need express no interest in free school lunches to be signed up for the program; all the school has to do is provide student enrollment information to the food stamp office, which will match up the names and add those students to the free lunch list. Homeless, runaway and migrant children are automatically qualified as well.

For families not already receiving government food assistance, FRAC tells schools how to conduct a "campaign to collect meal applications from the remaining student population." One suggestion is to offer prizes, such as a "$500 office supply gift card to schools that collect over 90 percent of their meal applications," or to give "sporting event tickets to classrooms" with a high application return rate.

FRAC also suggests making the application for free and reduced-lunches "accessible" to parents by filling the forms out with as much student information as possible before asking parents to complete them. Schools should also work with community groups to promote the lunch subsidy program and have applications available in all languages spoken by the parents, according to FRAC.

With or without tips from FRAC, schools are enrolling millions of kids in the subsidized program. Taxpayers forked over $9.7 billion during fiscal year 2010 for the National School Lunch Program.

On a typical school day, 31.6 million children sit down to a school cafeteria lunch. Twenty million of them — that's 63% — receive free or reduced-price lunches. Will 63% of American school kids really go hungry if taxpayers don't feed them? Or are there what economists call "perverse incentives" in place that reward schools for signing up as many kids as possible for free or reduced-price lunches? (Chicago Tribune, 4-11-11 and 4-12-11)

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