School lunch aid made easier

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

Thousands of poor students in Ohio who need free school lunches will get to skip the paperwork this fall.

Instead of requiring families who receive food stamps or are part of the Ohio Works First program to fill out forms and return them to their children's schools, districts already will know they are eligible and enroll them automatically.

The information, which the Ohio Department of Education gathered from the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, was slated to reach districts last month.

Families that don't receive food stamps or help from Ohio Works First but qualify for school-lunch assistance because of low income still must fill out forms.

"It benefits the district and obviously the kids themselves," said Karen Truett, spokeswoman for Newark schools. "Now, not everybody fills out the forms even though they might be eligible."

Statewide, about 620,000 children -- about 35 percent of students -- receive free or reduced-price lunches.

The system is meant to help school districts find eligible students, for whom they receive federal subsidies. The number of free and reduced-price lunches schools serve dictates how much extra federal money for poor students they receive; some districts get millions in poverty funding each year. The schools can use the money for academics.

But for families, the automatic enrollment could take the sting out of asking for help. It might benefit parents who simply didn't understand the program, too.

There are parents who may not apply for program because of language barriers," said Brigette Hires, assistant director of the state's School Meal Programs office.

The "direct certification" process will be new to most schools, the product of a recent federal mandate. Some districts question how beneficial it will be and wonder whether the data will be accurate and tell them something they don't already know.

Most districts already seek out students who might be eligible. Many, including Newark, send home the school lunch application with all students at the beginning of the year.

Districts also already had an increase in the number of lunch program enrollees a couple of years ago, when the state stopped requiring a separate form, even for siblings.

"You may not have the high-schooler wanting to complete that (form), but once they made it a family application, you picked up more kids that way," said Jenna McDevitt, director of business services and purchasing for Westerville schools.

"I don't know that (the new process) will make a lot of difference."

Some of the larger districts already have experimented with the automatic enrollment process and have found eligible students, Hires said.

It's a once-a-year process, though. So if families begin to receive food stamps midyear, there won't be automatic enrollment and they will have to submit an application.

"Plus, there are going to be some students who are not automatically going to qualify, but will qualify because of their family's income level, and we definitely don't want them to fall through the cracks," Truett said.

To qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch, a family of four must have an income of about $39,000 or less.