It’s hard to know what’s worse – that hundreds of thousands of students who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches don’t get them, or that tens of thousands who do get them shouldn’t. While 74 percent of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s 700,000 students could be eligible for subsidized meals for low-income students, only 37percent of those in middle schools and high schools participate. The district receives between $2.07 and $2.47 for each subsidized meal served. But since only about half of the 500,000 students who qualify participate, that amounts to a loss of $100 million a year – funds that could be staving off hunger and providing the basic nutrition that schooling demands. Meanwhile, a recent federal report finds that slightly more than one in five students who received a subsidized lunch last year weren’t, in fact, eligible for the benefit. Nationwide, that fraud amounts to a $935million hit, at least. Compounding the problem is that the federal government uses the number of students receiving subsidized meals to determine how much special funding districts can get for everything from books to teachers. That gives schools little incentive to crack down on fraud. So when school districts such as the LAUSD have needy kids not getting their aid, the districts themselves will lose valuable funding. Meanwhile, wealthier districts stand to get more than they deserve through fraud. The problem is double-edged: To qualify for the meals, parents must fill out forms documenting their income. Some eligible families are too proud, or too uninformed, to do so, and don’t. And some shameless families that don’t need the help take advantage of loopholes and lax enforcement to get a “free” lunch. Under federal law, school districts must verify income levels for only 3percent of the program’s enrollees. For the LAUSD, that means checking up on some 8,000 students – out of roughly a quarter-million each year. Even when families are caught taking advantage of the system, there is no serious consequence. In the LAUSD, they’re no longer allowed to keep getting free or reduced-price meals, but that’s all. There are no easy answers to this problem. The LAUSD is looking at ways to protect the identity of kids getting subsidized meals, so as to reduce the social stigma and encourage more to participate. But it’s hard to know whether that would make a difference – other districts don’t seem to have the same problem with getting their kids to participate. Meanwhile, tougher enforcement measures could help deter fraud, but can also have the effect of deterring eligible families from applying. Still, the amount of money wasted – and the vast extent of needs left unmet – bespeak a compelling need for reform.160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!