Free lunch program gets cited for income ineligibility

Thursday, March 14, 2002

One of every five kids who gets free or discounted meals at school may be ineligible because the family's income is too high, a government-commissioned study says.

The Agriculture Department, which runs the lunch program, says billions of dollars in education aid, including grants for computer hookups, are divvied up on the basis of the lunch numbers. And that's encouraging school officials to push the figures higher.

But while that may happen in some districts, officials in some Southeast Missouri school districts say it doesn't happen here.

"I'm certainly not going to go out there and cheat the government for a few extra dollars," said David Fuemmeler, Nell Holcomb school district superintendent. "That wouldn't be a bright idea."

Ron Anderson, Jackson R-II superintendent, says his district follows all of the procedures set by the federal government.

Lisa Elfrink, who coordinates the free and discounted lunch program for the Cape Girardeau school district, could not be reached Wednesday.

Unearned benefits

Some 13 million children nationwide received free meals last year, and an additional 2.6 million paid a discounted price, of no more than 40 cents per meal.

"I don't want to decrease the number of kids that participate if they are eligible to receive it," said Eric Bost, Agriculture's undersecretary for food and nutrition programs.

But, Bost said, millions of ineligible children reaping a benefit their families don't qualify for is a problem that demands a solution.

Schools rely upon parents to report their income properly because districts can only check the financial records of 3 percent of families to verify eligibility. Some schools even provide incentives to parents, including free raffle tickets, to get them to apply for free or discounted meals for their children.

Fuemmeler said his students were offered an incentive to have the form filled out by their parents.

"We do a little prize drawing for anyone who turns them in, whether they qualify or not, just to make sure the forms go home and come back," he said. "This year we gave an inexpensive jambox."

Roger Tatum, superintendent of the Scott City R-I school district, said his district has 389 students out of 1,000 who receive free or discounted lunches. But the district doesn't offer incentives for completing the forms.

"We send the forms home with the students at the beginning of the year," he said. "Then they bring them back and we do a random verification at some point during the year."

Studies that are done annually for the Agriculture Department by Mathematica Policy Research, an independent research firm, indicate the error rate grew rapidly in the 1990s. In 1999, the latest year for which data were available, the lunch rolls were 27 percent higher than they should have been, based on an analysis of census data. That's up from 23 percent in 1998 and just 5 percent in 1995.

The issue has divided school officials around the country. The American School Food Service Association, which represents school nutritionists, says there's obviously a problem.

Because so much money is at stake, "this has resulted in some schools allowing ineligible students to enroll in the program," Bost said.

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