N.J. schools bag funds with free lunch

A student eats lunch at an elementary school in Shishmaref, Alaska.

TEXT OF STORY

Tess Vigeland: In a couple of weeks New Jersey kids file back into their classrooms. School funding is a contentious issue in most states and Jersey is no exception.

Courts have often had to weigh in on how funding should work in a state with widely varying income levels. This spring a new funding formula got the seal of approval from the state's highest court. And it comes with a nutritional twist. Ashley Milne-Tyte reports.


ASHLEY MILNE-TYTE: New Jersey's formula now works like this: the state provides about $9,700 to educate each child to meet academic standards. But poor students in poor districts can get an extra $5,000 on top of that. That's where free lunch comes in.

David Sciarra is executive director of Education Law Center in Newark.

DAVID SCIARRA: In order to count a student as poor and to get additional resources through the formula, you have to make sure that the student is signed up and eligible for free and reduced lunch under the federal nutrition program.

The thinking is that children who qualify for free meals have greater educational needs overall. So for towns and cities with lots of poor kids, the race is on to sign them up for free lunch by a deadline of October 1st, so they can get that extra funding. Newark has a 65 percent poverty rate, and most kids qualify for free lunch.

Today some of those kids are at summer basketball camp at Science Park High School. Father Brian Dunphy is running the camp.

BRIAN DUNPHY: We have awards for best character of the day. When you're not playing, the kids are over there. They have to be encouraging the other players out there, cheering for each other. You know, no trash talking, but just building each other up.

Science Park is one of Newark's newest schools. It has solar panels on the roof, soaring ceilings, and lots of computers in its pristine classrooms.

Valerie Wilson is acting school business administrator for Newark Public Schools. She says like other schools in the district, this one has plenty of parents who balk at filling out forms for free lunch. She says many parents are immigrants, and some may be undocumented.

VALERIE WILSON: There are concerns that the data may be shared with other federal agencies. And we have a difficult time reassuring our parents who may in fact really qualify, that they should fill out the application.

She says they don't share the data with the government. But it's not just parents who are reluctant. High schoolers don't like what they see as the stigma of getting a free lunch.

Wilson says one way they've tried to deal with that is the technology they now use in their cafeterias. Only the cashier can tell what your lunch status is. Your peers are in the dark.

WILSON: This is a point-of-sale system. So here is the key pad that they would key in their student ID, and their name comes up automatically.

Wilson says school staff are about to embark on a blizzard of parent outreach. Letters and forms go out in several languages including Portuguese and Creole. She says every parent should understand the implications of free and reduced lunch. If a kid isn't signed up, they lose out on more than a meal.

WILSON: If you have a student who's struggling, in order to qualify for supplemental educational services, which is tutoring, free of cost to the parents, that child has to have had a lunch application the previous year.

And missing forms means the district loses out on money too. School starts on September 3rd. The Newark school district has set itself some homework: it wants 95 percent of its lunch application forms completed by the October 1st deadline.

In Newark, I'm Ashley Milne-Tyte for Marketplace.

About the author

Ashley Milne-Tyte is the host of a podcast about women in the workplace called The Broad Experience.

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