District 51 to offer breaks on meals

Parents can submit applications for free, reduced-price student lunches

Free and reduced-price school meal applications are available now for School District 51 families.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture typically has not allowed school districts to invite parents to fill out free or reduced-price meal applications until 30 days before the start of school. This year, however, parents were able to begin filling out and submitting applications July 1.

Parents can visit http://www.applyforlunch.com/application to fill out an application online or click on the “ApplyForLunch.com” logo on the district’s home page at d51schools.org.

This is the second consecutive year parents have had the option to apply online. District 51 Nutrition Services Director Dan Sharp said 85 to 90 percent of applicants still choose to use a paper application, but computers and assistance are available for those who want to make the switch in school cafeterias during school hours or at back-to-school nights before the start of the school year.

The number of applications received annually in the district — between 8,000 and 9,000 — has remained steady. But the number of errors on applications shrank from 30 to 40 percent in the past to less than 5 percent last year, Sharp said.

The application software District 51 uses does not allow applicants to proceed to the next step of the process unless all required fields have been filled out. That step, Sharp said, has helped make the application process smoother so only one person has to work on processing them, down from a full-time employee and three or four temporary workers in past years.

The earlier availability of applications this year is helpful in District 51, Sharp said, because of the earlier start of school this year on Aug. 12. The early start of school, however, means the “carry-over” period, when last year’s free and reduced-price meal recipients still get to take advantage of the program before parents submit an application for the current year, will end earlier than usual on Sept. 20.

Students will still get food at school until at least late October while the district sends them messages and robo-calls weekly to remind them to fill out a new application.

After that time, students will get a basic meal of a peanut butter sandwich, an apple and milk if they cannot pay.

The Sept. 20 deadline may prove troublesome for some Title I schools this year. In past years, the carry-over deadline ended after schools took an enrollment count on or around Oct. 1 each fall.

That ensured schools could use the previous year’s free and reduced meal population count to apply for Title I funding, which is given to schools where at least half of the students qualify for free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch.

This year, though, schools will have to rely on new application counts received after July 1 for their Title I funding applications.

“DIA (Dual Immersion Academy), for example, is usually around 50 percent, so if maybe 20 kids don’t apply by Sept. 20, that could hurt their application,” Sharp said.

The free and reduced-price meal application process typically takes 10 to 15 minutes, according to Sharp. In order to make the application process go faster, parents should have the names and gross incomes of every member of the household, the grade and birthday of every student who lives in the house and the last four digits of the applying parent’s social security number ready before they start filling out the application.


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