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Tuesday, January 27, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 27.0° F  Overcast
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Madison's high-poverty schools could be serving free meals to all their students by fall 2014
'Let's just feed the kids'
Zipperer: 'You can see that almost every day there are kids who aren't eating.'

Sherman Middle School counselor Bert Zipperer spends most lunch periods eating with the kids in the school cafeteria. As such, the 27-year-veteran of the Madison Metropolitan School District is familiar with the struggles of Madison's low-income students.

This fall, due in no small part to Zipperer's persistence, Sherman and a number of other schools and programs with large low-income populations will likely be able to offer free breakfast and lunch to all students. This would eliminate the need to apply for the free and reduced lunch program, which only serves some students.

Zipperer is relieved. He says teachers and support staff, including social workers and counselors, spend too much time helping parents fill out paperwork to determine eligibility for meals and advocating for students who have negative balances on their lunch accounts.

Even worse, Zipperer believes kids are missing out on meals because of the cumbersome process. "You can see that almost every day there are kids who aren't eating," he says. "And they're giving you a variety of reasons. Sometimes they'll say, 'I don't have money.'"

Zipperer says he's even seen a food-service envelope where a mom scrawled "QUIT STARVING MY CHILD!" after her son was denied the full lunch because she owed money on his reduced-lunch account. (Even students who qualify for "free" lunch need to pay for extras like chocolate milk, soup or desserts.)

Zipperer doesn't want all the credit, but he is upfront about his goal of making breakfast and lunch free for all students in the district. "Let's just feed the kids" has become his rallying cry.

He made sure administrators knew about the September announcement that Boston public schools were offering breakfast and lunch to every student. Boston was part of a pilot for the Community Eligibility Provision, a result of the federal Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. The free lunch program has been implemented in approximately 4,000 schools nationwide.

On June 30, the district applied for funds under the CEP program through the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI). The application "bundled" a group of schools that together have 62% of students "directly certified" for free and reduced lunch. Schools that will be affected are Allis, Falk, Lake View, Leopold and Mendota elementary schools and Sherman and Wright middle schools. The application also covers the district's 12 alternative programs.

Zipperer says the need is great. When he met with other support staff from Madison middle schools last fall, the topic of school lunch came up. "The place erupted," he recalls. "Everybody's telling horror stories about the hassle and the ridiculousness and about how we should just be feeding the kids."

Trouble in line

The National School Lunch Program provides subsidies for lunches, channeled through state and local entities. To receive federal funds, schools are required to offer free and reduced lunches to low-income kids whose parents' incomes fall below certain levels.

When students register for school in the fall, parents are asked if they want to apply for free and reduced-price lunch. When students are in line at the cafeteria, they punch an ID number into a computer that indicates if they are eligible for a free lunch or if they owe money. When their balances get low, students get an envelope to bring home to parents. And if their account is overdrawn by more than $3, students get a cheese sandwich -- instead of the full hot lunch -- and an envelope indicating the balance they need to pay to restore their status.

Zipperer believes the district's computerized application form is a barrier to some parents, especially when English is not their first language. "Some people don't use computers much," says Zipperer. "Families are confused by online registration, and it's easy to click the wrong box."

Zipperer notes the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that as many as one in seven students nationwide fails to receive certification for free and reduced meals even though they are poor enough to qualify.

In Zipperer's opinion, that situation hurts kids, burdens support staff and puts lunchroom employees in the uncomfortable position of enforcing district rules by withholding food from kids who carry balances on their lunch accounts.

"A lot of us have dropped money into envelopes for kids to make sure they had money," he says. "People have used a variety of funds to cover kids."

But he doesn't blame lunchroom staff. "They're getting squeezed to make sure they're not giving away free food."

Stigma and poverty

Even if the district gets the DPI approval for the federal funds, they won't cover high schools or other schools that failed to meet the federal criteria for high-poverty schools. That means poor students in wealthier schools will still need to apply for assistance and deal with the stigma.

"I'm lucky to be in a school that's heavily low income," says Zipperer. "Because in a school that's not, the stigma is hellacious. You get the 12 or 15 kids of color, typically, sitting eating breakfast in the cafeteria instead of being on the playground before school."

"The stigmatization associated with poverty in general is something we all see every day," adds Mike Barry, assistant superintendent for business services for the school district. "The free and reduced lunch program is intended to protect students from that. But it's not perfect."

Former school board member Marj Passman advocated for the free lunch program before she retired from the board last fall. Passman taught in the Madison schools for more than 25 years and says she always kept bread and peanut butter in her desk for hungry kids. She calls the new approach a "wonderful solution" and would like the district to expand into more schools and include high schools.

"We're not a corporation. We're not dealing with widgets. We're dealing with little children and big children," says Passman. She says having to prove eligibility for food is "one more assault on their self-respect. That's not needed, not necessary and not how we should treat children in this country."

Barry says he is confident the application will be approved, which means the approved schools will be serving breakfast and lunch to all students beginning this fall.

"We're really excited about it," says Barry, noting it means a "blanket qualification" for all the students in a low-income school.

Barry says the plan not only reduces paperwork, but eliminates the need to secure lunch balances: "The last place we want to deal with collection issues is in the lunch line."

Schools that will offer free breakfast and lunch would need to develop alternative ways to determine whether students face financial need.

"Free and reduced lunch status has become a proxy for [determining eligibility for] all sorts of other programs," says Barry. "If we have schools where all that paperwork is no longer necessary, we're going to need an alternative means of providing families with a way of telling us about their income status. Then we can use that alternative for things like discounted bus passes, fee waivers and other programs."

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