08/11/11 — Families applying for help to pay for lunch

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Families applying for help to pay for lunch

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on August 11, 2011 1:46 PM

Barbara Ward can remember back to when the number of children receiving free or reduced lunch services in the school system hovered at 49 percent.

"I didn't think we were ever going to hit the 50 percent mark," the director of child nutrition said. "Now we're at 61 percent."

Currently, the district serves 11,776 students in the program.

The economy, along with more and more parents struggling to make ends meet and unable to comfortably feed their families, are just a few of the reasons for the increase.

One fact that has helped provide a clearer picture of the need for services came from the "direct certified program," provided from the state Department of Public Instruction and based upon information obtained from social services.

"Parents now have applied for food and nutrition services who have children in Wayne County schools -- every county school is doing this. They have applied for free and reduced nutrition services and that information is automatically sent to us," said Dewana Faison, child nutrition supervisor.

The information is sent to the school system, which then notifies families of eligibility and eliminates the need for them to submit an application.

As of now, there are 6,500 students who have qualified for food and nutrition services, formerly called the food stamp program.

"Those letters have actually gone out or are going out this week," Ms. Ward said.

Unlike the applications, however -- which allow parents to fill out one form and list all children -- families should receive individual letters for each eligible child.

"If they don't get (a letter) for each child, we need to know it, we need to know it immediately," she said.

When one child qualifies for the lunch program, she pointed out, the entire family qualifies. And it is valid for the entire school year.

"If their status changes -- income goes up and they think they don't qualify now because they make more money -- they do not have to notify us that their income has increased because they qualified for the whole school year," Ms. Ward said. "The only time they have to notify us if it works to their advantage (another newborn, loss of a job) those are the kinds of things that would be good for them to reapply."

Information about the free and reduced lunch program typically go home with students during open house and the first few days of school. Not all letters come back, however.

"Some parents may actually qualify but do not choose to accept the program that's available," said Ken Derksen, public information officer for the district. "We would encourage that, any parents who qualifies or thinks they may qualify to go ahead and apply. ... We would much rather have a parent qualify and receive that service than not be able to afford lunch for their child."

For families who have not been pre-approved by the direct certified program, Ms. Ward said, an application for free or reduced lunches must be filled out each year.

"If an application is filled out, they automatically qualify for the first 30 days of school based on last year's," she explained. "Until we qualify them based on this year's application it's really important to get that application in ASAP."

While her office processes applications throughout the year, there is a deadline imposed at the start of each school year, Ms. Ward said.

"Sometime in early October when that cut-off date comes around, if we do not have a current application, they will be put back to a paying student," she said.

At schools that have already begun -- Wayne Early/Middle College High School and Wayne School of Engineering, both which started this week -- Sept. 20 marks the 30th day. Deadlines at Goldsboro High School and Dillard Middle schools are Oct. 5, and in the remaining traditional schools, will be Oct. 7.

It's especially important to follow directions and fill out the forms properly, Ms. Ward said, to prevent forms being returned and delaying the process.

There have been some slight changes to the application process, she pointed out, including only writing the last four numbers of the Social Security number and being able to list all foster children on the same form.

Typically, applications are processed within 10 days of receipt, with a notification letter sent out to the family.

Parents are invited to contact her office with any questions, concerns about the deadline or if they do not receive a response after submitting the application. The office number is 705-6145.

Making sure students have food to eat is an important part of the school day, the women said, especially when considering situations faced by some of the children.

"I think it's a wonderful program," Ms. Faison said. "We're feeding kids that otherwise may not get a meal."

"Sometimes it's the only meal that they get," added Ms. Ward. "They're served breakfast and lunch ... sometimes kids qualify for free and reduced meals but they don't eat breakfast. We encourage them to eat with us because we are there to serve students."

Those concerned about the child feeling awkward or uncomfortable for receiving supplemental services need not worry, she said.

"We do not identify kids as free or reduced when they go through the line," she said. "There's a student number they give the cashier which is so nobody is overtly identified. Everybody is treated the same."