Out to lunch

School free and reduced meal use increasing, grace period ends

Tuesday marked the end of the grace period for students to reapply for free and reduced lunch and student nutrition services officials have seen a rush of applications as the about 150 students in the district who weren’t registered found themselves without lunch money.


Dean Hamburg, administrator of student nutrition services for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, said each year the deadline catches some people by surprise.

“Each year, families are getting better and better at following through with a fresh application, but also each year we do have some students that show up that might not be fully supported with money, or a form, or a bagged lunch,” Hamburg said. “By the end of the week we’ll have overcome the issue.”

A ten-working day waiting period is mandated in the district’s application, however Hamburg said his office can usually get through the applications much faster.

“We can generally have that student on that list in two days,” he said. “(Once approved), it goes immediately online into our integrated network of school lunch rooms ... shows up in the computer cash register in the lunch line and instantly shows up with the student’s number and profile.”

Hamburg said his office sent out notices for the past several weeks reminding parents that the deadline for reapplying for aid was looming.

“No child goes unfed, but what we do is we’ll use this day to get an exact measurement of those families that really, really need to apply,” Hamburg said on Wednesday. “Today will be an inspiring day for many households to complete the application. We help those households as best we can.”

The exact number of students in the district who qualify for free and reduced price lunches varies, sometimes on a daily basis.

Because that number is used to determine several types of funding, including Title I funds, or as an indicator on No Child Left Behind, Hamburg said the program operates under strict guidelines.

“We’re audited to validate that all of our applications are correct and we’re required by law to select approximately three percent of families ... to request that the families validate that their income shown on the application was true. It’s an arduous task,” he said.

The federal government mandated the number of students enrolled in the program on Oct. 31 would be used in all of the district’s data reporting.

The federally mandated income qualifications in Alaska are higher than in the Lower 48.

In Alaska a family of four would qualify for a free meal with an annual income of $37,466 while that same family would have to make $29,965 to qualify according to U.S. Department of Agriculture income guidelines.

“Our nation recognizes the higher expense,” Hamburg said. “You can make a little more money here and qualify. That’s somewhat unique to the state of Alaska, we also receive a higher per-meal reimbursement.”

The federal government subsidizes all school lunches, not just those that qualify for free or reduced prices. For each paid lunch the district receives a .45 cent reimbursement from the federal government, for each reduced lunch it gets $4.12 and for each free lunch it gets $4.52.

Hamburg said the need for free and reduced price lunches has grown by about 1.2 percent per year since his arrival in the district in 2003.

“When I arrived ... approximately 35 percent of the families qualified for free and reduced price meals and we’re up to about 44 percent now,” he said.

Not every school in the school district has school lunch program administered by student nutrition services, so that 44 percent represents the just the student population in the 34 school lunch sites. There are 44 schools in the school district.

Despite the recent deadline, families can apply at any time during the year for aid with student meals.

“Our office will receive, review and enroll students as free and reduced right up to the last month of school as families go through the ups and downs of income,” Hamburg said. “They don’t have to plead their case, all they have to do is fill out the form. We have those families that will explain their circumstance out of concern and pride, all we care about is that they fill out the form and we’ll take care of them.”


Rashah McChesney can be reached at rashah.mcchesney@peninsulaclarion.com.