At Rognel Heights Elementary/Middle School on the west side of Baltimore, seventh-grader Brianna McClain loads up on veggies at the salad bar.
“I love the salad,” she says. “I get almost everything that’s on there.”
This is not just any salad bar. It’s a trophy. Rognel Heights won it from the district, because last year every family in the school returned the application form for free and reduced-price lunch.
“I remember the first time I saw it,” Brianna says. “I was so, like, impressed.”
The salad bar sweepstakes is part of a big push in Baltimore to sign up every family in the city's public schools who qualifies for free meals. To receive benefits, a family must earn less than 185 percent of the federal poverty level -- about $43,500 a year for a family of four. In Baltimore, that's a lot of families.
"We want to provide meals to those kids that need them the most within our city,” says John Walker, interim director of Food and Nutrition Services for Baltimore City Public Schools. In many cases, he says, the only healthy meals students get during the day are the ones they eat at school.
But this is about so much more than lunch. It’s about millions of dollars in school funding. That’s because Maryland, like many states, determines how much money school districts receive for disadvantaged students based on the number of kids who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches.
“We get approximately $5,000 per child in state aid for every free and reduced student that we can identify as of October 31 each year,” says Walker. This year that adds up to more than $323 million.
In other words, what starts with a free turkey sandwich, an apple and a carton of milk ends up driving more than a quarter of the district’s operating budget. Nationally we’re talking billions of dollars pegged to that one number.
It's not just state funding for school districts at stake. The $2 billion federal E-Rate program gives schools discounts of up to 90 percent on their telephone and internet service, based on free and reduced-price lunch rates. Many districts also use lunch to calculate federal funding for individual schools.
At Baltimore's Rognel Heights, that could mean as much as $187,000 in funding. Principal Marie Parfait-Davis says that's money that pays for extra help in the classroom, new technology or books.
“We desperately need all of our parents to fill out those lunch applications, because money is tied to those lunch applications,” Parfait-Davis says. “We definitely can’t afford to not get any extra funding.”
But some critics of the process think having parents simply fill out a form, where they verify their own income, is too easy.
"There’s nothing wrong with that if there were checks and balances on the system,” says Lisa Snell, director of education and child welfare at the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank. School districts typically have to verify just three percent of approved applications. In Baltimore, that's just a sliver of the district's 85,000 students.
Snell points to a scandal in New Jersey last summer, where more than 100 public employees or their family members were accused of lying about their incomes to get free meals for their kids.
“It would be one thing if it was just a free lunch that these kids were getting,” Snell says. “A lot of people say, ‘who cares, we don’t want kids to go hungry,’ but it’s actually billions of dollars in state and federal aid that are at stake.”
A national study six years ago found that one in five families either qualified for benefits and shouldn’t have, because they earned too much, or they didn’t qualify and they should have.
The USDA is repeating that study, says Kevin Concannon, who oversees the program as Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“I am expecting that we will have seen a considerable reduction on that front,” he says.
A reduction, he says, because a lot more kids are now enrolled automatically in the lunch program if their families receive food stamps or temporary cash assistance. Those are poverty programs that do require proof of income. In Baltimore, the district says about 75 percent of families who qualify for benefits are now certified this way.
Zoe Neuberger researches federal nutrition programs at the nonprofit Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which advocates for low-income families. She says schools shouldn’t be in the business of policing what families earn.
“Every time USDA has done studies of what happens if you do more checking or ask for more documentation, it becomes very clear that more eligible kids are kept away from getting benefits,” Neuberger says.
Many high-poverty schools have started feeding everybody for free, so they don’t have to count. They rely on other data. That option became available in Maryland this year, but Baltimore’s John Walker says the state would still make schools collect income data. Without a free lunch attached to that form, the city worried not enough parents would hand it in.
“We would take the risk of our percentage going down and us potentially losing millions of dollars in state aid as a result of that,” Walker says.
So every Fall, out come the incentives. Last year it was the salad bars. This year it might be donated tickets to Baltimore Ravens or Orioles games, or school visits from team mascots.
But before a school can even think about winning, all the applications need to come back. And when the financial fate of your school rests in the hands of a lot of little kids who need to get the papers home, get them signed and get them back to school, even bribes may be in order.
At Rognel Heights Elementary/Middle School, secretary Eileen Eldridge cracks open the prize vault – a file cabinet filled with domino sets and yo-yos and other goodies.
“We even have erasers that look like cell phones,” Eldridge says.
And when all else fails? She might dip into her own pocket.
“Kind of gave them a little money incentive, so they can get something down at the cafeteria,” she says. “You know, little dollar, fifty cents.”
And it worked. Last year by September 30, she had an application back for every student.
District wide, in five years the campaign has helped raise the percentage of kids who qualify for lunch benefits from 71.5 percent to 84 percent. That’s a lot more kids getting fed, and about $55 million more in state aid.