The United States of America has become the "Socialist States of America"

800 kids lose out on free lunches Parents failed to turn in forms verifying income to schools

Pat Kossan The Arizona Republic Feb. 24, 2006 12:00 AM

Nearly 800 kids were booted from Arizona's free school-lunch program after their parents failed to give state auditors proof that they merited the lunches.

An additional 278 at the seven schools audited either lost their benefits or had them reduced because their families made too much money.

Some lawmakers view the study as proof that it's too easy for Arizona kids to get into the federal lunch program. More than half of the state's 1 million school kids got free or reduced-price lunches last year at a cost of $156 million. Arizona is among the top seven states in percentage.

The report by the Arizona auditor general recommended that schools do more verification both to weed out ineligibles and identify eligible kids who aren't enrolled. The audit led to a cutoff of benefits for more than half the kids examined.

Some kids and their siblings where thrown out because state auditors found out their parents made too much money to qualify, but most of the students were pushed out because their parents never verified family income as required by federal law, the report said. Two letters and a phone call were placed to each student's family that didn't respond.

The kids cut from the program are not necessarily going without lunch. In Glendale Elementary District, where many kids' lunches were cut, any student who forgets lunch money or can't afford to pay for the $1.25 full-price lunch gets a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a piece of fruit and milk.

But some kids could be going without or feeling the money pinch.

"What's concerning me is reducing the number of children we feed," said Mary Szafranski, who runs the federal program for the Arizona Department of Education. "Our main concern is jeopardizing the child that is getting the meal and getting, in many cases, the only meal for a day."

The number of kids in the free-lunch program is important to schools and lawmakers because it helps determine which districts qualify for some federal and state programs, such as reading grants, free all-day kindergarten and preschool programs.

Sen. Robert Blendu said legislative leaders asked for the study because there has been talk of using the numbers to determine new funding to help English-language learners.

"There's really no verification in these programs," said Blendu, a Republican from Litchfield Park. "It's not a yardstick we should be using to determine need in school districts."

Some lawmakers are planning a hearing to review the study.

There are several ways kids get into the free- and reduced-price lunch program.

Students whose family qualifies for food stamps are automatically enrolled. Districts can put other children into the program if they qualify as homeless or as runaways or belong to migrant families who draw their income from farm work.

The majority of Arizona kids are in the program because their parents signed an application indicating that they meet the income requirements. These are the applications examined in the study. Families can have incomes about 30 percent higher than the census' poverty-income level and still qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

Schools are obligated each year to verify about three out of every 100 applications by asking parents for proof of income. The Auditor General's Office examined all the applications at the seven schools, which represented 1,936 children in 948 families. As a result, 14.5 percent of the students had their benefits cut off or reduced because family income was too high. But about 40 percent of parents box never responded. The program does not require proof of citizenship and the study did not examine the legal status of the parents.

Without proof of income, federal law requires schools to stop providing the student with free food. For example, after the audit, Glendale's William C. Jack Elementary School had to push 200 kids out of the program. District officials began making house calls immediately, asking for verification and trying to get kids back into the program, said Associate Superintendent Kevin Hagerty. No poll or census survey ever gets 100 percent cooperation, so Hagerty said he wasn't surprised when so many parents didn't respond.

"I'm not sure everyone understood what would happen if they didn't respond," Hagerty said. "It's a tough spot to be in."

Szafranski said the Arizona Department of Education is working on more reliable ways to get kids into the lunch program, such as automatically enrolling families who qualify for state-paid health insurance or food-distribution programs run by Native American communities.

Reach the reporter at pat

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