iPads for School Lunches: SFUSD Woos Applicants with Prizes

In public schools, there is such a thing as a free lunch. In San Francisco, it might even come with a free iPad.

Roughly 62 percent of local public-school students qualify for meal subsidies, but their parents have to file paperwork to make it happen. When they don't, the San Francisco Unified School District loses money — $250,000 last year, for example.

Now, school leaders have dreamed up a new way to reel in applicants: prizes. This year, everyone who applies for meal subsidies will also have the chance to win fancy gadgets and memorabilia such as an iPad 2, an iPod Touch, a football signed by 49er Frank Gore, iTunes gift cards, and more.

It's potentially a cheap fix for an expensive — and labyrinthine — problem. It goes something like this: Kids from a four-person clan that brings home $42,648 per year can eat at school for free. In turn, the U.S. Department of Agriculture gives schools just under $3 per lunch for every student who qualifies. But if a kid doesn't apply, and then lunches for free, the school eats $3.

Some years, feeding kids who don't pay for lunch or apply for subsidies has cost the district $1 million, says Dana Woldow, who chaired the district's nutrition committee for many years. "We discovered this was a problem the first day there was a nutrition committee [in 2002]," she says. Nobody knew what to do about it.

There are a number of reasons eligible families might not sign up. Some undocumented families may fear that filling out the forms might tip off immigration officials. (It won't). Or, the application may get lost in the tidal wave of paperwork families face when their child enters school, says Woldow.

It's tough to nail down how many eligible students aren't registered, since meal applications are the district's only way of gauging families' income levels, says district spokeswoman Heidi Anderson. But in San Francisco, where minimum wage is $10.24 an hour, every last clam from the government matters.

Money shortages are covered "out of the general fund, and is money that could be applied toward any number of unmet funding needs — including offering more menu choices to our students," Anderson says.

SFUSD isn't the first to try prizes. Baltimore City Schools recently gave away tickets to see Jay-Z, Kanye West, and Disney on Ice to families who filled out free and reduced-price lunch applications, though district spokeswoman Edie House Foster couldn't say how many more applications they attracted. Locally, the prizes were either donated or obtained at no cost, Anderson says.

So far, it seems to be working: This year, 6,000 families applied before school started, which is unusual, Anderson says. Prizes will be awarded Sept. 1.

 
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