Removing the Stigma of Applying for School Meal Benefits

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November 14, 2018 By: Tina Mortimer Category: Hunger Stories

If you’re a parent, teacher or school administrator, chances are you’ve attended at least one open house at the beginning of a new school year. Maybe it was at an elementary school where you had the opportunity to meet your child’s teacher and explore the classroom, or a high school where you helped your teenager find their locker and get registered for fall activities. Whether it was at an elementary school, middle school or high school, public or private, the atmosphere was probably the same: chaotic. It’s nothing against the school, it’s just the nature of the event. Open houses, full of anxious and excited students and overwhelmed parents, are meant to energize and prepare everyone for a successful year. It’s also the ideal time to encourage families to complete an Application for Educational Benefits (AEB), commonly known as the free and reduced-cost lunch form.

In the South Saint Paul School District, where approximately half the student population qualifies for free or reduced-cost lunch, back-to-school open houses have traditionally been a time for families to sign up for benefits. Parents who wanted to sign up or re-apply would need to visit a table where a member of the food services team or volunteer handed out AEB forms. The only problem was, not many families stopped by the table to sign up, either because they didn’t know they qualified, or they were concerned about the stigma attached to applying for benefits.

Dr. David Webb, superintendent of the South Saint Paul School District, wants to remove the stigma and get more families on board.

“Some families aren’t aware that the benefits even exist,” he said. “Another reason for the lack of participation is that in the past we just didn’t have enough support for families — the lines were too long, and the forms took too long to complete, and there’s a stigma attached.”

Dr. Webb and his team developed an action plan to increase participation and ensure no student would go hungry.

“We started with the overall vision of creating a district where every family who was qualified was signed up to receive benefits with the ultimate goal of having every student fed,” he said. “I went to a conference at Yale University where one of the speakers talked about the strategy of prepopulating forms to increase participation, so we started prepopulating the forms with everything but the key data and family income.”

To remove the stigma, the school district began requiring all families to go through the line for benefits, and either sign up if they qualified, or opt out.  The district also began offering multiple ways for families to sign up, including online and through the mail. And at the start of the school year, the district had family support workers reach out to those families that had qualified in the previous year but still hadn’t completed an application for the current year.

Getting qualifying families signed-up for benefits is a vital step in ensuring that all students are getting the meals they need to thrive in school. Requiring all families to fill-out an AEB normalizes and destigmatizes the process ensuring that all qualifying families receive meal benefits and that the school receives funding from federal reimbursements.

The result of all these efforts? According to Dr. Webb, the district saw a two percent increase in free and reduced-cost meal participation from 2016 to 2017.

“That may not sound like a lot, Dr. Webb said, “but when it comes to the compensatory funding the district receives from the state it could amount to a couple hundred thousand dollars to use for things like additional teachers and counselors.”

While it’s only been two years since the changes were implemented, Dr. Webb said he’s confident that the new steps will continue to help families in his district and mean more students will get the nutritious meals they need to learn and grow.


Childhood hunger in Minnesota is a serious and prevalent issue that can affect both kids’ day-to-day lives and their long-term ability to succeed. When kids are hungry, anxiety and poor behaviors rise, learning is compromised, and physical and mental development can be affected. Learn about Second Harvest Heartland’s Child Hunger Initiative and how you can help.





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