Nearly 750 RF students qualify for meal discounts
With an increase of 1.3% in a year, the number of River Falls students who qualify for free and reduced-price meals rose at a rate slightly higher than the state average.
But because of confidentially standards, federal guidelines and limits on what school districts can do to verify eligibility, it's hard to tell what that increase means.
According to a report released by Wisconsin's Department of Public Instruction in March, free and reduced-price meal eligibility in the state has increased for the 8th year.
In the River Falls district this year, 21.1% of students have qualified for either free meals or the reduced prices of 30 cents for breakfast and 40 cents for lunch.
That means 745 students are receiving free or reduced-price lunches, said Chad Smurawa, the school district's director of finance and facilities. That's about 38 more children than last year.
Free or Reduced-Price Meal Eligibility
Percent eligible for 2011-2012
21.1%.......... River Falls
26.0%.......... St. Croix Central
33.1%.......... New Richmond
48.0%.......... Spring Valley
According to federal eligibility guidelines, school meals are free to children who live in households with annual incomes at or below $29,055 for a family of four.
Reduced-price meals are available to children who live in households with annual incomes at or below $41,348.
The regular price for breakfast in River Falls schools is $1.10 for elementary students and $1.20 for middle school students. The regular price for lunch is $1.90 for elementary students and $2.20 for middle and high school students.
The application form for reduced-price meals is mailed to the families of all elementary students and is distributed to older students when they attend orientation, said Smurawa.
"Everybody gets it," he said.
While the letter to parents says the financial information they provide will be checked, that's an overstatement, said Smurawa.
"The federal government set the procedures that we must follow," he said.
Each year the district must ask for written validation from a small sampling of the people who apply. This year the district sent out requests for verification to five families. Three of those didn't respond at all and were cut off from the reduced-price meals.
"You'd think that wouldn't be too hard to do," said Smurawa of providing income verification. Still, more than half of those asked to provide the information didn't.
"It makes you wonder," added Smurawa of the reluctance to provide verification.
The number of people qualifying for reduced-price lunches has gradually increased over time, but part of that might be due to a failure to raise income guidelines, Smurawa said.
"Generally over time more people qualify because they (the federal government) haven't increased the limit," he said.
He can't comment on individual circumstances that might account for increases, said Smurawa, explaining that the information is strictly controlled.
Families that receive FoodShare or Wisconsin Works benefits and foster children formally placed by a state welfare agency are eligible for free meals.
To quality for reduced-price meals, families must fill out an application that asks for a listing of all household members who have income, gross income and an indication of where that income comes from (earnings from work, child support, pensions and other sources), and a listing of all members of the household, including grandparents, other relatives or friends.
While families generally apply at the start of the school year, they may apply at any time.
In more than 100 Wisconsin school districts, 50% or more of students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals.
The highest percentage is in Lac du Flambeau School District No. 1, which has an eligibility rate of 91%. Other districts with high rates are Milwaukee, 83.4%; Menominee Indian, 80.7%; Beloit, 78.8%; Webster, 77.2%; Bayfield, 73%; Adams-Friendship, 72.6%; and Siren, 70.5%.