Pat DeMoe, a food server, marks off names of first and second graders taking hot lunch in the cafeteria at Sherman Elementary School during the first day of classes last week. This year, parents with children in the Toledo Public School District are finding it easier for their children to be eligible for free or reduced meals because of new rules in the program.
Hoping to catch children and families who might otherwise fall through the cracks, the state is streamlining the process it uses to sign children up to receive free and reduced-price lunches.
Last year, an average of 500,000 Ohio children ate free and reduced-price lunches on any given school day, said Scott Blake, spokesman for the state Department of Education.
Previously, most children would have been enrolled by having their parents fill out and return a form with proof of income. Through a direct certification process, the state is now using data from the department of Job and Family Services, and automatically enrolling children from families receiving food stamps and/or cash assistance in the lunch program.
The idea is to streamline the process and make sure everyone who qualifies for the program is enrolled, Mr. Blake explained.
"It cuts out a step for quite a few folks," Mr. Blake said.
"We didn't want anybody to fall through the cracks," he said. "We know that these kids would qualify; why not use the information we've already got"?
Shirley Munoz replenishes the supply of hot dog buns for hungry Sherman first and second graders in the lunch line. The state lunch program gives those children whose parents are on public assistance free or reduced meals without a lengthy application process, although parents not on aid but whose income still qualifies for meal help must fill out forms.
The state administers the program, and the federal government reimburses school districts for their meal costs.
The National School Lunch Program served more than 30.5 million children in 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Children from families with incomes lower than 130 percent of the poverty level - less than $27,560 for a family of four - can get a free meal. Those with incomes between 130 and 185 percent of the federal poverty level - between $27,560 and $39,220- qualify for a reduced-price meal, according to the USDA.
In Lucas County, 71,467 people receive food stamps, and 12,424 people receive cash assistance, according to the most recent statistics available from the county's department of Job and Family Services.
Some districts had been using a direct-enrollment method, but this year for the first time, every district will use it as the program is rolled out statewide, Mr. Blake said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is requiring all schools to use direct enrollment by this year, said Kathleen FioRito, a spokesman for the agency.
Mr. Blake said he's not sure if enrollment in the lunch program will increase because of the new process.
Those who qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch and do not receive public assistance still will have to fill out a paper form, Mr. Blake said.
Patty Mazur, a Toledo Public Schools spokesman, said 17,113 TPS students are eligible for free meals, and 1,311 are eligible for reduced-price meals, according to statistics from last school year. That's about 70 percent of TPS students, though not everyone who is eligible takes advantage of the program, Ms. Mazur said.
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