Monday, August 31, 2009

Hot topic: SFUSD meal application

An SF K Files visitor asked me to post the following:

Every fall, school officials and school food advocates urge SFUSD families to return the school meal application form, writing “not interested” if they know they don’t meet the income criteria for subsidized lunch.

This year, we are recession victims and are filling out the form for real. So now I know – this form is awful. Even though it’s pretty short, it’s ugly, intimidating and user-unfriendly. That’s not the fault of our school district – even though the form is customized for San Francisco Unified, its contents are mandated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the National School Lunch Program.

Many school food advocates are calling for the feds to eliminate the form and the massive bureaucracy that it creates and just feed every student free who shows up in the cafeteria. Among other benefits, that would mean the caf workers could actually pay attention to providing lunch for the kids, rather than devoting much of their energy to the “counting and claiming” process – keeping track of the record-keeping for qualified students to ensure that no “cheats” get a school lunch they don’t “deserve.” The nation’s current best-known school food insider, Chef Ann Cooper, has joined that call.

Here is an explanation of why families who think they qualify are urged to fill out the form (even if their kids aren’t likely to eat in the caf), and why all families are asked to return it, even with “not interested” on it. It benefits all our schools and our kids when those forms are returned!

Why do parents need to fill out a meal application?
Student Nutrition Services (SNS), the district department responsible for providing school meals, is asking all families to fill out the meal application, even those who know they won’t qualify based on family income. See below for more details.
SNS has annual expenses of about $16 million. Their main source of income is from federal and state reimbursements for breakfasts and lunches served to students who qualify for free and reduced price meals. Without a meal application on file, SNS cannot receive the full government reimbursement for those meals.
Based on family size and income, as reported on the meal application, students are designated eligible for free or reduced price meals, or they are designated as being on “paid” status (meaning not reimbursable). The “paid” category includes not only students whose family income is too high to qualify for reimbursement, but also students whose families have not filled out a form at all. SNS receives just 25 cents from the government to offset the cost of “paid” lunches, while total reimbursement for a student qualified for free meals is $2.78. Students on “paid” status are expected to pay for their school meals. However, not all of them do so.
How will my school benefit if parents fill out the meal app?
-- Schools receive money based on the figures that come from these forms.
-- Free and reduced lunch counts determine individual school eligibility for
Federal Title 1 funding.
-- There are other grants and award available to schools based on percentages of students enrolled in the NSLP.
-- Higher rates of students qualified for free or reduced price meals brings higher WSF funding.
-- Having a free/reduced lunch participation rate which accurately reflects the economic status of the school’s students ensures a more accurate “similar schools” ranking on the Academic Performance Index.
-- Eligible students can receive breakfast as well as lunch.
-- Often school lunch is more nutritious than what students bring from home, because the school lunch must comply with USDA nutrition standards.
-- Studies show students who eat a nutritious breakfast and lunch learn better and behave better in school.
-- Enrolled students pay a greatly reduced rate for each AP exam they take, and are eligible to participate in other paid programs at reduced or no cost.
-- Higher participation in the lunch line means better quality food for everyone!
-- Student Nutrition Service is working to improve the meal quality at all schools, but changes require money. The budget for SNS comes from government reimbursement and from student’s payments for each meal served. No revenue is generated when students don’t sign up or use the lunch program, when students buy their food off campus or from vending machines, or when students do not pay for their lunches even when they should. If more students enroll and use school meal programs, more money will be available to order fresher, more appealing food for every student’s lunch, whether they are eating the NSLP lunch or buying a la carte food from the Beanery.
(This information is available as a flyer which can be printed out at:
What about families who know they won’t qualify because their income is too high?
SNS is asking all families to fill out the meal application, even those who know they won’t qualify based on family income. Those families can simply provide the student’s name and write “NOT INTERESTED” prominently on the top of the form. The reason why families are being asked to return the form even if they are not interested, is that SNS has determined that fear of being identified as “poor” created a stigma for students returning the form in prior years. Having every student return a form eliminates this stigma, and makes it more likely that students who would qualify for reimbursement will return their forms without embarrassment.
Why not just add a “not interested” box on the form to be checked off if the family knows they won’t qualify?
The contents of the meal applications are tightly regulated by the state and federal government. No changes can be made to the form with prior approval. SNS did ask for permission to add such a box to their form, but permission was denied by the state.
Why should a family fill out the form if their child doesn’t want to eat in the cafeteria?
If there is any chance that the student might qualify for reimbursable meals, the family should fill out the entire form, even if the child won’t eat in the caf, because every qualifying child raises the school’s free and reduced percentage. It is on this percentage that funding decisions are based. So being identified as qualified helps the school even if the child never sets foot in the caf. Of course, if the child does decide to eat school meals sometimes, then that helps too, by bringing in more reimbursement money for SNS, which is then available to fund better quality food.

For more information on the meal applications and all other aspects of SFUSD school food, go to, the volunteer-maintained website of the SFUSD Student Nutrition & Physical Activity Committee.

-- Caroline Grannan, Parent, San Francisco School of the Arts, and member, SFUSD Student Nutrition & Physical Activity Committee


  1. By popular request, the short version. If you do not qualify for subsidized lunch, please write your child's name and school, put "Not interested," SIGN THE FORM and return it. If you DO qualify, please fill out and return the form even if your child will never be eating in the caf.

    Read the full entry above to learn why this is important and how it benefits your child's school.

    If your school staff is telling you you have to fill out the entire form if you don't qualify, THEY ARE WRONG. Some schools are giving out this misinformation. District student nutrition staff is racing around trying to set them straight.

  2. Thanks for this a parent of a child that just started K at one of SF's K-5 schools, I just assumed that we could disregard the form since we were not interested in subsidized lunches.