As most students come to the cash register at the end of the cafeteria lunch line with their lunches in hand, they dig out their wallets or give their student ID numbers, linked to accounts into which their parents have deposited money. Some students, meanwhile, don’t pay the usual price of $4.25 for a full meal and instead receive the cafeteria lunch at reduced or no cost.
As per the National School Lunch Program, first passed in 1946, students from families who earn less than the amount outlined by U.S Department of Agriculture, $30,615 annually for a family of four, are eligible for a free lunch every day. Moreover, those coming from a family of four earning less than $43,568 qualify for a reduced-price lunch.
In the Princeton Public Schools district, 417 students qualify for free or reduced lunch, 31.3 percent of which attend PHS. In the 2013–2014 school year, this amounted to 131 students, or 8.9 percent of the PHS student body, up from 7.1 percent of students in 2008.
To apply for free or reduced lunch, students must hand in forms, available at the Main Office. “You take [the forms] home to your parents, and they just fill out their income. Based on their income, the school will decide if you qualify to get free or reduced lunch,” said Shahieym Brown ’16, who has received free lunch from the district since second grade.
Before the new cycle of eligibility for free or reduced lunch begins in October, both students new to the program and those who participated in past years must apply. “The school has been very helpful by extending [the deadline] this year, not just disqualifying those who didn’t submit their application by October 1,” said Food Services Director Joel Rosa. “Sometime late October is when they started the process again.”
Despite the quantity of students who qualify for free or reduced lunch and other Title I programs, student awareness of the program and how to apply remains relatively low. “They give out packets for it at the beginning of the year in homeroom every year,” said Jeremy Cohen ’16. “That’s the only contact I’ve had with it.”
“In Peer Group … for Field Day, we had to remind freshmen that for free and reduced lunch they could always come and talk to us afterwards, that they could pick [forms] up, but … they didn’t want us to make it a big deal,” said Isabelle Sohn ’16.
Students who receive free or reduced lunch are also exempt from other school-related fees. “If you qualify for free or reduced lunch, you can fill out a fee waiver form for the SATs, for college apps, but you have to be proactive about that. You have to go to Guidance and get those forms,” said Vice Principal Jessica Baxter. “Seniors don’t have to pay for their cap and gown, and there’s a reduced price for prom [and] for [a] yearbook … You also get free or reduced breakfast.”
Nonetheless, many students who could receive free or reduced lunch decline to do so. “I think there’s a taboo because in the Princeton school district, you have [many] students who can’t afford lunch, and there are [times] where the students don’t want to seem like they’re underprivileged, so sometimes I feel that students are ashamed because they qualify under free and reduced lunch,” Rosa said. “Perhaps 30 or 40 percent of [students who qualify] actually go through the lunch lines.”
Many students feel that more can be done to help students from less affluent families take greater advantage of opportunities at PHS. “I think it’s also possible that people who are from less affluent families … don’t want to broadcast that either, so [it would be helpful to advertise programs] in a way that would make kids comfortable with the situation because … It’s difficult,” Sohn said.
The greatest issue at the moment seems to be communication and the reluctance of some students to apply. “The problem is not so much the resources, it’s students’ knowing about them and how to find out that they have access to them,” Baxter said.
Students also found that the information should be more readily available to the student body. “[The school] should make some of the opportunities a little more known and less, ‘Oh, you need to ask to find this information,’” said Vicki Addonizio ’18.
Nevertheless, although not all food items are available to students with free or reduced lunch, students who participate in the program greatly appreciate the benefits. “All the years I’ve had it, I’ve never really encountered a problem with free and reduced lunch, so it’s just beneficial for students who need it,” Brown said.