How free lunches pay off for schools

Seventh-grader Brianna McClain hits the salad bar at Rognel Heights Elementary/Middle School in Baltimore, Md. The salad bar was a reward from the district for the school's efforts to collect free and reduced-price lunch applications from families.


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.

About the author

Amy Scott is Marketplace’s education correspondent covering the K-12 and higher education beats, as well as general business and economic stories.
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I should know better than to read comments. My high school science teacher taught us to be conscious thinkers. His example: Ever notice that the more fire trucks that show up to a fire are equivalent to how big the fire is? Maybe if we only sent one truck to every fire we would keep them small (# of trucks = size of fire - right??). So if we feed less kids we will have less hungry children. Brilliant.

If this issue could be solved with the simple solutions listed here don't you think someone would have come up with those solutions by now????? Please keep researching the causes of hunger - and download the movie A Place At The Table. Then start being part of the solution in your own community. Please! We need as many people as possible to help. Productively. Thank you.

I found your feature on the school lunch program to be snide and one-sided. Your slant is clearly leaning toward the idea that the school lunch program is full of waste and fraud- like all the anti-poverty programs you smug middle class "liberals" hate so much. Citing a Libertarian think tank on a government program for the poor is disingenuous- they hate all government programs. As a 30 year public school educator, I can tell you that schools don't make the rules, we follow them. If E-rate and Title 1 funds are tied to F/R lunch counts, that's what we go with. Suggesting that my families would commit fraud to get a free lunch is insulting- the opposite is true. In our urban district, we undercount if anything. Quit giving side-ways kicks to the poor and expose some of the real fraud (Defense, Ag Subsidies, Wall Street) in this society.

I heard this story last night and have had much time to think about it. These food programs amount to millions of dollars for individual school districts 11 billion nationally. Did everyone read this part: "School districts typically have to verify just three percent of approved applications" If public schools are focusing on applications for food assistance and getting government assistance where is the focus on SCHOOLING: reading, writing, math, science, social justice for all including the taxpayers. I agree kids will focus better if they are well feed, well oatmeal bought in bulk with cinnamon and peanut butter are things a poor family can afford. Or have one less child so everyone can eat. Why do people continue to have children they cannot afford? Why is it a taxpayer’s responsibility to feed others children? Where is people's pride? Yes follow the money of food assistance in school. It is sad and probably for most will lead to a future of SNAP benefits and welfare. Because Welfare works for some, and the rest of us work to support welfare.

RonSwan, you ask "Why do schools pay attention to securing funds for feeding children when they should be concentrating on instruction?"
Answer: Because it is right, good, practical and proper that they do so.

You ask, "Why should schools feed kids when parents can easily afford inexpensive food?"
Answer: Because it is right, good, practical and proper that they do so.

You ask, "Why do people reproduce when they can ill-afford children?
Answer: Who knows? But also, who cares?

Look, I absolutely recognize the frustration you've expressed. Every progressive minded American secular Calvinist like me asks themselves the same questions. We ask, "Why do so many people behave irresponsibly? Why do they expect that others will provide for them? Why do they so often act childishly and why do they so often make foolish decisions? Why is it always my responsibility to rescue these other people? Why, when I've made some error or done something foolish, have I had only myself to blame and only myself to rely upon to dig myself out?

Despite the fact that we're easier on ourselves about our own record of responsibility than we think we are, for a lot of people, they're generally legitimate questions. I think the way we look at the answers divides us into groups.

People who ask these questions have to decide, whatever their attitude toward the demands of (worthy or unworthy) needful adults, whether they are willing to punish children as a means to instruct their parents. For me, while I'm embarrassed to admit that I'm sometimes otherwise tempted, I'm solidly in the group that resists punishing children in this way.

Which group are you in?

Thank you RT for your thoughtful response. Since I am working and on my lunch my reaction may appear a bit "knee jerk" and not quite as well thought out.

You ask, "Why do people reproduce when they can ill-afford children?
Answer: Who knows? But also, who cares?

I care about people having children they cannot afford. Not that I care in an emotional way but I care that they are creating a long term problem that I have to pay for. It is the crux of this problem and many other problems of perceived inequality.

Life is about choices and having children is one that people should put thought into. I care about the state of our youth today. The bullies and the killers. F-it give them the free lunch, I just don’t care anymore. Since that seems to be your take away message to not care. It is so very sad, I am not proud about this aspect of our society that is deteriorating
into a culture of haves and “needs” “needy” people who contribute little to society. Maybe next it will be they all “need” iPads. But, they probably already have iPads because when you don’t have to spend money on lunch one can buy other things.

Oh and what group am I in, the group of Personal Responsibility and I know in today’s culture teaching children responsibility is considered punishment. Punish away.

RonSwan, this is indeed the difference between you and me, then. I see clearly that punishing children for their parents' bad acts teaches nothing but hate, breeds nothing but anger and fosters nothing but resentment.

I might well agree that I, too, have concern about how social policy can have unintended long-term consequences. How best to "Promote the General Welfare", as the preamble instructs us, is a subject for legitimate debate.

However, when I answer your question with my question, "Who cares?", I mean this specifically: Once kids are part of my community, I don't care what crummy set of circumstances got them here. As I said, while it may be fair to criticize adults and rebuke them for poor decision-making and irresponsible behavior, I'm NOT willing to punish or torture or demean or embarrass or otherwise abuse their children as a means to correct irresponsible parents. I understand that this eliminates an obviously effective social tool; it's an evil tool and it's use is evil.

In our predominant culture, people have until pretty recently had the ubiquitous attitude that we have little responsibility for the children of others; Charles Dickens's writing reflects his unease with this attitude, contemporary in his time and place. As with a lot of other things such as slavery, persecution of heretics and subjugation of females, this "ethic of disinterest" belongs on the proverbial ash-heap of history. Requiascat in pace.

I wish that someone would have made one comment about the impact of the program on the scholastic results. Listening to the interview the impression i was left with was that of a school only concerned about raising funds through the free lunch program. As a willing taxpayer supporting most social programs i found the story disturbing and almost felt used. i just about lost it when they mentioned the reward system with tickets to the ravens or orioles.

The Reason Foundation: "Here's how we can justify not feeding some school kids!"

Knock knock, Nobel committees, are you listening?!

Mixed feelings. I'm glad that Ms. Scott + the Marketplace program have been talking about free lunches. I received a free lunch all through middle school and it was a lifesaver when money was tight. As usual though, you profiled an African-American student from the inner city. I am a caucasian male from a rural town. There are lots of us folks who are hard up. The media is always chasing the poor in the cities but what about those of us in bumblescrup, america? All you media types keep pretending poor white folks don't exist. We exist. But I guess we're too poor and too white to be worth interviewing.

obviously, the free lunch program is a major contributor to the obesity epidemic...this is something you painstakingly avoided.

also, the major importance of the free lunch percentage is it is the most important predictor of low academic achievement...lets avoid this subject because it is soooo politically incorrect

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