Tuesday, May 28, 2002

Many getting free food ineligible

USDA has known about students for 20 years

The Associated Press

        LOUISVILLE — More than one in four children in Kentucky and across the nation who are signed up for free or reduced-price school lunches are not eligible for them, according to a report published Sunday.

        The U.S. Department of Agriculture has known for at least 20 years — through its own studies and audits — that large numbers of lunch-pro gram participants were ineligible, according tothe Louisville Courier-Journal, which reviewed more than 3,000 pages of government and other documents.

        But the USDA has made little progress in solving what is viewed as a complex and sensitive problem, the Louisville newspaper reported.

        “Nobody's eager to talk about this, because nobody knows how to address it,” said Paul McElwain, director of the Kentucky Department of Education's Division of School and Community Nutrition.

        The National School Lunch Program is intended to provide nutritious meals to poor children. The program's benefits are unques tioned — the link between good nutrition and the ability to learn is well-established.

        However, possibly as much as $1 billion in tax money is being spent nationwide each year on feeding children from families who are not eligible.

        It costs $200,000 a day to feed one child at each of the more than 97,000 schools in the lunch program, according to the USDA.

        The lunch program provided free meals to about 13 million children on a typical day last year, and reduced- priced lunches to 2.6 million children. In Kentucky, about 312,000 are approved for such meals.

        Using family income data from the census, the USDA estimates that 29 percent of the children approved for free school lunches nationwide were not eligible in 1999. Just a year earlier, an estimated 23 percent weren't eligible, up from 16 percent in 1996.

        In Kentucky, 26 percent of all free-lunch recipients were ineligi ble in 1998, the most recent year for state-by-state breakdowns.

        Federal regulations require school systems to audit few participants — 3 percent or less — each year and ask them to submit proof of income. Though the audits cover just a small number of families, they often reveal high rates of ineligibility.

        The number of children getting free and reduced-price lunches is used as a poverty indicator that helps determine how much money public schools re ceive through state and federal educational programs.

        When a family signs up for the lunch program, it is required only to submit an application stating its income.

        There has been debate over whether the USDA should require documentation that the family's income does not exceed the program's ceiling. A child from a family of four can eat lunch for free only if his or her family's total annual income does not exceed $22,945. For the same child to buy a reduced-price school lunch the family can make no more than $32,653.

        The USDA has enlisted the aid of 22 school districts around the country to test three approaches designed to reduce the rate of ineligibility. Two of the approaches have resulted in significant numbers of lunch-program participants being declared ineligible, according to documents obtained from the USDA under the Freedom of Information Act.


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