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Other’s opinion: Another challenge for strained school budgets

Star Tribune

Already facing significant budget deficits, the Minneapolis School District has another COVID-related financial worry: Applications for free and reduced-price lunch have decreased, which could result in less federal funding for lower-income students.

The income information is due by Dec. 15. But as of Nov. 20, more than 11,000 students had not applied. And of those who completed the paperwork, about 44 percent qualified for the program, down from nearly 51 percent last year.

To maintain much-needed federal support, schools in Minneapolis and those in other districts must get the word out to families about the importance of applying. Their educational programs cannot afford to possibly lose thousands of dollars per student for those most in need.

Given the economic downturn during the coronavirus pandemic, school leaders believe that there are likely more families eligible for the lunch programs than in a typical year. Amid school shutdowns, meals have been provided to all students who want them under waivers granted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Because the meals continued, some parents likely thought they didn’t have to apply. But data from those income forms are used not only to provide meals; the funds generated support other educational services for individual students and concentrations of low-income kids.

For several decades, information about employment and income has been used to help provide school meals. And collecting that data has been an important way to calculate how many children live in lower-income households without violating privacy laws. Today more than 29 million children — more than half of public school students nationwide — qualify for free and reduced-price meals.

“There are so many things, funding-wise, that depend on [that data], and we’re really trying to communicate that it’s more than a lunch form,” Sara Eugene, the development and compliance coordinator for culinary and wellness services for Minneapolis Public Schools, told the Star Tribune. “For some of our schools, each application is worth literally thousands of dollars, so each one really does matter.”

Other Minnesota districts with high enrollments of lower-income students are experiencing similar problems, as are schools in other parts of the country, according to an Education Week report.

The national nonprofit No Kid Hungry keeps track of school lunch programs. Its officials also say this year’s decrease in applications seems to be a result of the waivers and students learning and eating at home.

But No Kid Hungry also recognizes the importance of student services that are tied to filling out the meal forms. To encourage participation, they compiled a list of best practices that districts can use to boost participation. Those strategies include changing the names of the forms, explaining how the forms benefit families aside from school meals and using a wide variety of ways to communicate the message.