WINTHROP — School Nutrition Director Erin Weeks said she has “tried everything” to get families to fill out and return their free and reduced lunch forms.

“I don’t know what else to do,” Weeks said Aug. 18 at a Winthrop School Committee meeting.

When the “old-fashioned way” of sending the paperwork home with students did not work, Weeks mailed the forms to students’ homes, with a stamped, addressed envelope.

Of the 652 letters she sent, Weeks has received 100 back.

Free and reduced lunch had been based on family income, but due to the coronavirus, the federal government has provided funding so meals were free for all students.

Even though all students now qualify for free meals, the information is still used for districts to qualify for grants and federal funding.

While she said she understands it may be daunting to fill out a form that includes personal information, Weeks has made it clear to parents she is the only one who will see the information and cannot share it with anyone.

The form asks for parents’ Social Security number, address and income.

“The percentage of free and reduced students dropped and we lost funding,” Weeks said. “I would estimate in Winthrop, there were 35% to 40% (who qualified), and the number dropped slightly below 30% because people did not fill out the applications. I would expect it to go up, not down.”

The federal government made breakfast and lunch free for all public school students during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The program was extended multiple times throughout the year before the state sought to continue the program through 2023.

The program Meals for Student Fund pays the difference between the amount of money reimbursed and what it costs to provide free meals for all students. The reimbursement rate is $3.75 for each meal.

The issue is impacting school districts across Maine.

Katy Grondin, assistant superintendent for Augusta Public Schools, said in the message the district needs families to complete the form.

And Angela Hardy, curriculum director in Maine School Administrative District 11, spoke at a June 6 meeting about how the district’s Helen Thompson Elementary School no longer qualifies for Title I funding because the free and reduced enrollment rates dropped below 40% over the past year. Meantime, Hardy said, Pittston-Randolph Consolidated School is getting close to being under the 40% mark.

“Over the years, we aren’t the only district finding this, but families are not completing the free and reduced lunch forms,” Hardy said at the meeting. “It might not be problematic to the family, but it is to the district. It’s tied to funding.

“We understand the reasons why it doesn’t get filled out and try to provide recourses, but if we go below 40% eligibility for three years straight in a building, we no longer qualify for Title I. That’s where Helen Thompson is at.”

According to the Maine Department of Education, areas of the budget impacted by the district data are: Title 1 schools, Individuals with Disabilities Act, before and after school care, summer school programs, special academic programming from the DOE and the Elementary & Secondary Education Act, also known as the Every Child Succeeds Act.

Schools are required to have Title I funding in place. If it is not funded by the government, it would have to be paid with local dollars.

Title I allows all students to receive a “fair, high-quality education,” and can provide customized curriculum for students to meet goals.

Hardy said MSAD 11 officials have considered ways to get the paperwork out to families, including sending it home outside the “big packet of forms” students get at the beginning of the year and leaning on community members to spread the word.

Like school districts across Maine, the state DOE has tried different ways to get the form to be returned.

Gov. Janet Mills has also sent a letter to families, along with the free and reduced lunch form.

“This application is the one way you as a parent or guardian can invest in your student’s education,” Mills wrote.

The state DOE has tried online sign-ups, but schools have to pay for the program. Of Augusta-area schools, only those in Regional School Unit 38 have opted for online sign-ups.

Weeks said cost is why Winthrop has not gone that route.

She wants families to know the form’s importance, regardless of whether income would have qualified them for free and reduced lunch in the past.

“Not returning the application can cost Winthrop taxpayers money,” Weeks said. “Money we (otherwise) don’t receive from the state. Families should return it regardless of whether or not breakfast and lunch are free.”

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