Students grabbing lunch

Litchfield Schools will offer free meals to students ages 18 and under at 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., March 18 to 20, at the Litchfield High School parking lot outside Door 14, in response to school cancelation due to the spread of COVID-19 throughout Minnesota.

Litchfield School District missed out on more than $200,000 during the past four years, because families who might qualify for School Nutrition Programs — or free- and reduced-price meals — did not apply. 

“A lot of people, even though they can't afford it, are too proud to fill out an application to receive benefits,” Business Manager Jesse Johnson said. “It's not exactly a very proud moment for a lot of people to walk in our office, ask for (the) application and say, ‘We're struggling financially, and we need help.’” 

The free- and reduced-price meals program exists to help families, and they shouldn’t feel shameful for applying, Johnson said.

“Some people just don't have it in them to do that,” he explained. “They'll just roll up their sleeves and work harder — sacrifice things to make sure their kids get fed." 

But that can-do attitude might cost the district, as well as those families, who could benefit from a bump in qualified applicants for the program, Johnson said.

The school district experienced roughly a 5.12 percent drop in free- and reduced-price meals applicants from 2017 to projected 2021. The number of students receiving free lunch plummeted 27.94 percent. Meanwhile, students receiving reduced-price lunch is up 40.37 percent.

The drop in qualifying applicants affects the district’s compensatory fund, which is state money provided to help students meet state and local standards, according to the Minnesota Department of Education.

“We've lost ($212,136) in that funding because we have fewer families qualifying for free- and reduced-price meals,” Johnson said, alluding to the compensatory fund dipping from $744,955 in 2018 to projected $532,818 in 2021. “That's part of the (effect of) the good economy we have right now. The economy gets better, schools get less funding." 

A declining compensatory fund doesn’t hurt the school per se, according to Johnson.

“We're going to get the money for the foodservice,” he added. “So it's either going to get paid by the family or the state or donors. But on the other side, the education piece is tied to those economic indicators that are going down.”

Johnson said if an additional 61 students applied and qualified for the program this year, the gap in compensatory funding experienced over the past five years would improve. Even if today’s economy is better and fewer people qualify for the free- and reduced-price meals program, there are still people who would qualify, he said. 

The district also is working on approving a policy Johnson created for determining the criteria of food service donations from private sources. The first step of the policy is responding to a donor’s wishes for how they want their money used to help in-need students, Johnson said. 

“(Donors) control how we spend their donated money,” he added. “The people with the greatest need, get addressed first. … Then we look at families that (are) just within $5,000 of being eligible for benefits, they'll get addressed next. And then we look at everybody else. … The ones that are more to do and have more means get addressed last.”

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