A Blog Covering D.C. Education [ABCDE]

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Apr 21 2011

Four Ways to Increase Free and Reduced Lunch Enrollment in DCPS

One thing that bothers me is how, for some social problems, the “problem within the problem” is that people are not using the knowledge, resources, and strategies already available to solve them. For example, when it came to the “problem” of education, I discovered (as recently as last week) that many of my students were not taking advantage of one of the greatest resources a community had to offer, the public library. Of course, there will always be a few hold-outs who won’t see the benefits of free resources. But, most often, a lack of knowledge is what actually leads to a lack of use. In my situation, I discovered that students simply were not aware of how wonderful the library could be.

The big issue of our time is not that there is an insufficient supply of social services; rather, a sufficient supply is disconnected from demand. America is a rich and robust country. We enjoy so much. And, we already have the raw materials for success; it just needs to be arranged and put together properly. This is certainly not easy. (Consequently, the biggest service an entrepreneur can provide is to be the builder of connections by linking those in need with those who already do something to provide for those in need. We need efficient mechanisms for this. See DonorsChoose.org.)

Today’s guest post, co-authored by several TFA DC Region 2009 CMs, explores one service area for which this “disconnect” phenomenon holds true: school lunch. In short, there are many students in DCPS who would benefit greatly from the federal free and reduced lunch program, but who, for various reasons, do not end up participating in it. This, the authors conclude, is a problem–but one that needs to, and can be, remedied. The full post is below.

(Note: My “colorful” experience with school lunch is here.)

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Four Ways to Increase Free and Reduced Lunch Enrollment in DCPS

by Laura Amling, Grace Langham, Atheni Asihel, Erin Lavigna, Natalie Hanni, Jendia Marlowe and Bridget Melancon

David wipes the Cheeto residue off his mouth, and then looks in his bagged lunch he brought from home to see what else it has to offer- Kool-Aid and a Honey Bun.  For the third day in a row, he eats his unhealthy, bagged lunch, instead of the nutritious school lunch.  David’s family routinely spends their limited resources on junk for his lunch each day. Not only is this a waste of money, but also puts David at greater risk for obesity and does not adequately prepare him for an afternoon of learning.

David is one of many DCPS students who qualifies, but is not enrolled in the free or reduced lunch program. Families are either unaware of this program and its benefits, or do not have the skills or resources to apply for the program. Despite these various reasons, this is a problem that needs to be fixed.

In order to target the highest number of students who qualify, but do not receive the benefits of this program, we must focus on schools without Provision II status. Students at Provision II schools are automatically enrolled for free and reduced lunch, based on past eligibility rates.[i] For the remaining students, the burden falls on the families to ensure their children are enrolled.  A family member must first be aware of the program and then complete the complicated application process.  Consequently, many qualified students fall through the cracks.

In benchmarking success in other districts, there are key four recommendations for DCPS that will ensure all students who qualify for this program, reap the benefits.

(1) Simplifying the Process and Application. School Administrators or teachers can fill out the form with available family information, prior to distribution. Additionally, schools can offer a stipend to a school staff member that will serve as a liaison, guiding families through the application.

(2) Increasing Family Awareness of the Benefits of Free and Reduced Lunch. Through the use of videos on the DCPS website, informational packets in multiple languages, and school informational nights, families will have an increased understanding of the program.

(3) Create Enrollment Incentives for Families and Schools. DCPS in the past, in partnership with Chartwells/Thompson food services, has given the schools with the highest application rates $1,000 Staples gift cards and held raffles for individual applications to win prizes.[ii] These incentives need to be increased and implemented at the ward, cluster, school and classroom level.

(4) Implementing Direct Certification. This is the most effective solution, but may not be immediately feasible for DCPS. Direct Certification uses data matching to qualify children who are already enrolled in federally funded programs, such as TANF, FSP, and FPIR for free or reduced lunch, without the need for additional paperwork.  In D.C., 79.1% of students who qualify for free or reduced lunch could be automatically verified this way.[iii] This database needs to be created, and created soon. Though costly upfront, once a system is in place, maintaining certification is simple and saves money for school districts.


[i] USDA Food and Nutrition Service, http://www.fns.usda.gov/cnd/Governance/prov-1-2-3/Prov1_2_3_FactSheet.htm

[ii] D.C. Hunger Solutions, 2009, http://www.dchunger.org/pdf/collecting_schoolmeal_applications_guide09.pdf

[iii] USDA Food and Nutrition Service Application for Funding for Direct Certification Grants  http://www.fns.usda.gov/cnd/Grants/FY10certgrant_app.pdf

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2 Responses

  1. MJL

    Report from Helena, AR: Another great way is just to feed all the kids free lunch, whether or not they qualify, and waste tons of money by not getting repaid by the government for the extra kids. Of course, when 96% of your kids qualify, the administrative costs might outweigh the cost of 4% of kids’ meals.
    Of course, the kids are going to refuse to eat it bc “that stuff nasty.”

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