There is such a thing as a free lunch in Chicago Public Schools. Too many of them, in fact, reports the Chicago Tribune. A new report by CPS' inspector general James Sullivan shows the free school lunch program is rife with abuse, with parents routinely encouraged to submit fraudulent applications. Thousands of children who don't qualify for the program, it seems, are still getting a free meal.
But the french fries and the soggy hamburger aren't the draw here. Instead, officials encourage more free lunch applications because it's the standard their school is judged by when it comes to determining who gets extra money. Schools with high rates of children living in poverty get Title I funding, and that funding is largely based on how many children qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch. So there's a lot of incentive for schools to cheat.
The Tribune did an analysis, comparing how many children in a school come from a family that receives welfare or food stamps, and compared it to the percentage of children who receive free or reduced lunch. The analysis found that 167 schools had 20 percent more students eating free lunches than enrolled public aid programs. At some schools, the discrepancy was more than 60 percent.
While that analysis is likely the best way to determine how many children in a school are eligible for the program, it has some serious flaws. First, just because a family isn't receiving food stamps or public aid doesn't mean they aren't poor. According to the Food Research Action Center, one in three people who are eligible for food stamps don't get them. And stats on welfare programs are much more stark. In Illinois, only 9 percent of people who are living in poverty receive welfare assistance. Determining who is enrolled in a program only counts a fraction of those who are eligible.
The Tribune does point out that further discrepancies could exist because undocumented families can't apply for welfare or food stamps, and homeless students may not be enrolled in the programs.
The reporters based their analysis on the fact that the requirements for each program are about the same--living at 130 percent of the poverty level, which is $29,064 for a family of four. While clearly students and parents shouldn't be encouraged to lie about their income, those poverty standards are very low, especially for city living. If a student's family makes 132 or even 150 percent of the poverty level, are we really that worried about making sure they don't get a free lunch?
The article leaves out another beneficiary of the free-lunch program: agri-business. Food corporations make billions from providing lunch fare to schools. They've fought tooth and nail against new nutritional standards for lunches. They also have an incentive to reduce the number of brown-baggers in any school district. The more children who qualify means the more boxes of chicken nuggets and tiny cylinders of tropical punch a school needs to order.
But, abuse in any taxpayer-funded system is a problem because it means our dollars aren't being spent most effectively. And federal law prohibits school districts from being thorough in checking applications and weeding out fraud. That, plus an incentive to enroll more students than are really eligible, means trouble. Every dollar spent fraudulently takes away a dollar that could be used for better purposes. And with the state of our city's schools, they need every dollar well-spent that they can get.
Photo credit: Shannon Ramos
© Community Renewal Society 2011