A campaign to encourage more students to sign up for free or reduced lunches is seeing success as this year applications increased by 20 percent. However, of those who did apply fewer qualified for the program, according to school officials.

Montclair’s NAACP, in partnership with the Montclair public schools, began the initiative last year to encourage more families to sign up for the free and reduced-price meals.

This school year, 786 Montclair students applied, up from the 653 applications last year. However, only 455 students who applied were approved by the state this year, down 22 percent of the 583 who qualified last year.

NAACP’s education committee member James Harris said the campaign was started because the group believed there have been a “significant number of Montclair families eligible for free and reduced lunches” who opt not to apply. He attributes concerns over stigma, or fears that their personal information would be released, as reasons why families don’t apply.

About 15 percent of Montclair students, or 1,034 of the district’s 6,673 students, are classified as being economically disadvantaged and therefore eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, according to the district’s most recent performance report from the Department of Education. But this year a little under seven percent of Montclair’s total student population receive free or reduced lunches.

“Our view, from the view of the NAACP, is that this is a civil rights issue,” Harris said. The more families know about what services are available to them, the more they can become involved in issues that affect them, he added.

Hunger has a ripple effect on other aspects of a student’s life. “If a student is sitting in class hungry, does that impact their ability to concentrate on academics?” Harris asked.

The district worked with various community groups to help assist families with the filing of Free/Reduced applications for the 2019-20 school year, said Interim Superintendent Nathan Parker.

“We had an increase of application. However, the number that qualified declined compared to [last year],” Parker said.

Harris said the NAACP and the district did not have an explanation for why the approved application numbers dropped, and that the school district was doing a review of the numbers.

Harris said the district conducted outreach efforts and information sessions to advise families on the application process and the other benefits to qualified children. Families who sign up for free and reduced-price lunch are eligible for other services, including assistance with athletic fees, free college and AP testing, and discounts on bus tickets. Those benefits are not always known to some families, said NAACP member Susan Mack.

The biggest concerns for families, said Harris, is that an applicant’s status as receiving free and reduced-price meals will somehow get into the hands of people other than authorized school staff. The perceived stigma has been strong enough to deter many families from wishing to sign up, he said.

All documents are kept confidential, however. Cafeteria staff and other students are not aware of the students who are receiving free and reduced-price meals, according to school officials.

“Free and reduced price meal applications are confidential. Your information will be used to determine your child's eligibility for the school meal programs. And, pursuant to New Jersey law, unless you opt out using the enclosed form, we will inform Medicaid and NJ FamilyCare if your child may be eligible for free or low-cost health insurance. We cannot share your information for any other purpose without your written permission,” according to the district website.

Families must apply for free and reduced meals by October of the school year, with required status renewal each year.

In order to be eligible for free or reduced-price meals, under federal law, families must meet income requirements, and present documentation. For a Montclair household of four people, for example, the annual income can not exceed $47,638 a year, or $917 a week. The income for each member of the household who is earning an income must be provided on the application form.

Families who wish to sign up their children for free or reduced-price meals may do so through the district’s website or in person at the administration office.

Information on how to enroll a student in free or reduced-price lunch is available on the district website under food services.

There is an added benefit for the school district if more families sign up, Harris said. If 20 percent of the total student population receive free or reduced-price meals, Montclair will become eligible for additional federal funding, including Title 1 funding and grants.