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Dearth of lunch forms eats into funding

Families of low-income high school students often don't fill out reduced-price lunch forms, and it costs the schools federal money.

When Gulf High School assistant principal Pat Haynes sees needy students lunching on cookies or a bag of chips, she knows the kids are jeopardizing more than good nutrition.

Those kids are also cutting into their school's ability to cash in on its share of millions of dollars in grants and government rebates designed to benefit low-income schools.

By filling out a simple form, low-income students can eat for free or at a greatly reduced price. But many high school kids from low-income families don't sign up for the cheap meals, preventing schools from accurately counting the number of needy students they serve.

And that hurts the schools when it comes time to apply for grants and other programs designed to help schools reach low-income kids, and it costs the district hundreds of thousands of dollars each year in lost government lunch subsidies.

"They don't think it impacts anybody but themselves," Haynes said of students who choose not to enroll in the subsidized lunch program. "I don't think that parents understand that it impacts us, and I'm not sure that even if we told them that we could get something extra _ computers, money _ that it would be an incentive for them" to enroll their children in the program.

School officials said about 1,000 students who received the subsidy last year have not yet returned their applications for the new school year. School officials say that hundreds more students are eligible for the cheap meals but, every year, they refuse to participate.

To qualify for a free lunch, a family of four cannot earn more than $22,165. To receive a reduced-price lunch, a family of four cannot make more than $31,543. A reduced-price lunch costs a child 40 cents, compared to the $2 charged to a typical high school student.

"It's such a good value, and it will supply kids with all the nutrients they need," said Rick Kurtz, who estimated that between 20 and 40 percent of eligible students don't participate in the program. "We would like to see a much higher participation at the high schools because we get reimbursed for those meals from the federal government."

The government gives the district $2.02 for every free lunch it serves and $1.62 for every reduced-price meal. Just a couple of thousand students opting out of the program can mean a loss of about $500,000 a year in government subsidies.

Pasco received about $6-million from the federal government this school year to provide extra resources to schools serving large populations of low-income kids. Pasco administrators distribute the money, called Title I, to schools based on the number of students on their free- and reduced-price lunch rolls. High schools are never in the running for a slice of the Title I pie because so few of their students accept the subsidized lunch.

There's more than Title I money at stake.

In 1996 Congress passed a law giving schools discounts on their telephone bills and Internet access. The law, commonly called E-rate, also helps schools pay for the installation of new computer networks. The primary factor in determining the size of a school's discount and network subsidy is the number of students on its free and reduced-price lunch rolls.

In the next eight to 12 months, the school district will spend $380,000 to install a new computer network in Hudson High School. The elementary and middle schools feeding Hudson High average a 60-percent participation rate in the subsidized lunch program. At Hudson High, however, only about one-third of the students participate.

If Hudson High could match the free and reduced-price lunch percentages of its feeder schools, it may have qualified for an 80 percent discount on the computer network through the federal government, a potential savings of $304,000.

Pasco High School and Gulf High also missed out on the E-rate discounts, which may have amounted to a combined $600,000 savings.

Participation in the subsidized lunch program is strong in the county's elementary schools, where half of the children enrolled receive the subsidized lunch. In the middle schools, the numbers are slightly lower, with 43 percent of students receiving a subsidized lunch. But participation plummets in high school, where fewer than one-third of the students accept a free or reduced-price lunch.

Principals, guidance counselors and school social workers say there are a number of reasons why teenagers and their families don't enlist in the program, and none of them are easy to solve.

One of the biggest reasons is that image-conscious teens don't want to admit they come from low-income families.

"There's a stigma there," said Pam Censullo, a social worker at Hudson High. "The kids I've dealt with in the past, it's embarrassing for them."

It may also be embarrassing for the parents, who must disclose to the school district their annual incomes.

To counter those fears, the district has established "cashless" cafeterias. Students can buy a lunch by sliding their student identification cards through the district's computer, which bills their families electronically. School officials say when students use that system, it's impossible to tell who receives a subsidized lunch and who pays full price.

"We're trying to build a comfort level with parents that we don't identify free and reduced-price lunch students," said Kurtz, the district's director of food services. "A lot families base their decision (not to participate) on what their experiences were years ago, but with computers, it's completely different than how it used to be."

Some students instead pack a lunch, or opt to snack on fruit, chips or cookies instead of a full lunch. Other students eat on their way to after-school jobs or school-supervised internships.

"It could be that these kids are leaving school to go to work," said Ridgewood guidance counselor Glenn Cable. "And probably what you're seeing is kids who don't want to eat cafeteria food. You'll see a lot of brown bags."

Kurtz said he understands that some kids don't want to eat the school lunches, but he still wishes they would return the subsidized lunch enrollment form so schools could at least get a more accurate count of their low-income students.

They've offered free ice cream and other tokens to kids who return their forms, even if the students aren't eligible for the program. And to try and boost participation in high school, schools have mailed multiple enrollment forms to parents and some have even taken to calling families at home to ask them to enroll.

"That's all we can do," said Gulf High's Haynes. "We can't force them to fill it out."

_ Kent Fischer covers education in Pasco County. He can be reached at 800-333-7505, ext. 6241, or at 869-6241. His e-mail address is kfischersptimes.com.

Meal program numbers

As students get older, their participation in the school district's free and reduced-price lunch program drops. With fewer Pasco students signed up for the free meals, high schools can find themselves out of the running for grants and programs designated for low-income schools. Here are the school levels, the number of students receiving free and reduced-price lunches and the percentage of the total enrollment in those programs.

Level Students Percentage

Elementary 11,740 50%

Middle 4,165 43%

High 3,357 32%

Source: Pasco County School District, 1999-2000 data

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