In the 2010-11 school year, SFUSD Student Nutrition Services (SNS) served hundreds of thousands of meals to students who were not qualified to receive government-funded breakfast and lunch, but whose families did not pay for their child's school food, at a total cost to the school district of over $548,000. Thanks to the efforts of some schools to submit more free lunch applications and collect meal charges, the tab for unpaid meals has dropped from a record high of over $1 million in 2007-08, but half a million dollars is still an expense the cash-strapped district can ill afford. With Student Nutrition Services running a deficit in excess of $2 million and the school district required to make up this deficit out of the general fund, leaving less money for teacher salaries and classroom expenses, it is imperative that this issue be addressed.

The federal government gives schools money for every breakfast and lunch served to a student whose family fills out the required meal application and is deemed eligible. The cutoff for eligibility is based on family income of 185% of the federal poverty level, and is the same for all the 48 contiguous states (cutoff is higher for Alaska and Hawaii.)

The high cost of living in San Francisco, combined with a relatively low cutoff point based on national averages for poverty, means that some families make too much money to qualify for free or reduced price lunches for their children, but still not enough to adequate feed their families every day. The cutoff for a family of 4 (for example, two working adults and 2 children) for the upcoming school year is $41, 348, or just $81 more than those two adults would earn working jobs at SF's minimum wage of $9.92/hour 40 hours a week, year round. Imagine trying to support a family of 4 on minimum wage, but if either of those workers takes a second job, or works an extra shift to augment the family income, their children will not be eligible for free school meals.

In 2009, the SF Board of Education passed the Feeding Every Hungry Child resolution, which mandated that students coming through the cafeteria line with no money to pay for their meal, and ineligible for government-paid meals, would be fed regardless. It was based on the knowledge that hungry children can't learn, and are more likely to be inattentive or disruptive in class, negatively impacting their own learning and that of their classmates. The resolution was designed as a safety net so that children from families with income barely too high for free/reduced meals would not be denied food just because they had no money to pay on the spot.

Over time, however, the Feeding Every Hungry Child policy has been used to justify meal charges that it was never intended to cover. Some principals at high poverty schools send every child through the meal line to take a free lunch, even those whose families never filled out the meal application (and for whom no government payment will be available.) Some send children with bag lunches from home through the line to take a “free” milk each day, disregarding the fact that milk alone does not qualify for government payment even if a child qualifies for free meals; payment is received only if qualified children take the full meal, not just milk.

Other schools take their time about collecting meal applications and submitting them to the district for processing, meaning that even students who eventually do qualify for free or reduced price meals may accrue unpaid charges before their eligibility is established. In fact, it is charges by students who were eventually qualified for government-paid meals that make up the largest share (about $176,000) of the half million dollar debt. Many of these charges are generated by Kindergarteners or other students new to the SFUSD, between the start of school and the time when the district is able to process their meal application. There is no government money available to cover the cost of meals eaten before a student is qualified for free/reduced.

Beginning August 1, the meal application for the new school year will be available online at the school district’s website. All families are encouraged to submit an online application for their student, but especially those with incoming Kindergartners or other new students. Getting students qualified for free/reduced meals before the start of school is the single best way to help reduce this deficit.

Schools are not the only ones to blame for the unpaid meal charges. Some families refuse to fill out most of the meal application by checking a box on the form called "not interested." This option was added to the standard meal application to accommodate middle income families who already knew that they would not qualify for government-paid meals, and who didn't want to have to fill out the entire form, including details of family income, for a benefit which they were not asking to receive.

Years ago, such families simply threw the form away, but in recent years all families have been asked to fill out the form, so as not to stigmatize those who are applying for the benefit. When all students turn in the form, lower income students do not stand out among their peers; this has resulted in a much greater number of low income students, who may in the past have failed to turn in a form out of embarrassment, being qualified for free meals. Families of students planning to eat in the cafeteria, who know they won't qualify for government-paid meals, create an online account using the district's MealPay Plus feature.

However, some students whose families checked the “not interested” box are showing up in the meal line with no online account and no money to pay for their food. This group accounted for over $67,000 in unpaid meal charges this school year.

A complete description of all categories of unpaid meal charges is here, and a list of each school’s charges is here.

The Feeding Every Hungry Child policy directs the individual schools to make sure that every student has a completed meal application on file, and to notify families when students have unpaid meal charges. Student Nutrition Services updates lists monthly of students with charges, which are available to school administrators on SharePoint, the SFUSD's internal information-sharing system. Some schools have done a stellar job both of getting virtually all families to return a completed meal application, and of following up to collect outstanding meal balances, but others have not been as diligent.

No one wants any child to go hungry – ever – but the SNS deficit was growing so rapidly that by early 2011, some cuts had to be made to the quality of the food, and those cuts impact the poorest and most vulnerable students, the ones who do qualify for free meals, and whose families rely on those meals to keep their children properly nourished. In order to feed every child, SFUSD can't afford to continue paying for meals for students who should be receiving government-paid meals – and would be, if only they had a completed meal application on file – or for those whose parents can afford to pay, but don't. The Feeding Every Hungry Child policy exists to help those caught in the middle, the families not quite poor enough to qualify for government support, but not quite comfortable enough to get by without assistance.

With the SFUSD still facing a budget deficit in the millions of dollars, and hundreds of teachers being laid off, schools must do a better job of reducing meal charges. It may still be possible for SFUSD to feed every hungry child, as the Board of Education intended, but only if schools and families all do their part.

Dana Woldow has been an advocate for better school food since 2002, and was an SFUSD parent for 18 years.