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Ice cream parties were not incentive enough. So now the Buffalo School District is giving away gift certificates to stores at Walden Galleria.

It's not grades or homework assignments the district wants to improve. It's attendance at free meals.

Too many children are missing the free meals at Buffalo schools, district officials say.

That's why the district is now giving gift certificates to students, schools and staff members who help ratchet up the enrollment in the subsidized breakfast and lunch programs.

"The reason for the big push this year to get the applications in is not only to increase participation in the breakfast and lunch programs, but to increase our funding for educational programs as well," said Bridget O'Brien Wood, food service director. "And the reason for the incentives is we feel in many cases, the parents don't fill out the applications because the child doesn't want to be seen participating in the program."

The students with the lowest participation rate in the lunch and breakfast programs are typically in high school, however, and the district realized that ice cream parties probably wouldn't do much to change that, Wood said.

So the food-service staff brainstormed for ideas appealing to older children. This year's rewards will be gift certificates to stores in the Walden Galleria, given through random drawings in amounts ranging from $35 to $300. In some cases, the certificates are to be used by principals to buy items for their schools. But in others, the certificates are for personal use.

Schools, students and staff members will be eligible for the drawings based on the rate of return on applications. For example, all teachers with a 100 percent return of their homeroom applications by Oct. 1 will be eligible for a drawing for a $50 certificate, with one winner per school.

The school system's participation in the federally subsidized breakfast and lunch programs helps determine Buffalo's Title 1 funding, a major source of revenue for several programs that target poverty and remedial needs in the city's schools, Wood said. But the free lunch and breakfast program is missing thousands of eligible children in the city. District officials know that 82 percent, or about 39,000 students, qualify because of their family's income, but only about 35,000 participate.

As part of the incentive, the district examined where those 4,000 non-participating children are concentrated. Superintendent James Harris then sent a letter directly to the parents of all students at the 18 schools -- mostly high schools -- with the lowest participation rates. The letter encouraged parents to apply if they were eligible and offered help in completing the application.

The reasons so many children don't participate are many and have little to do with carelessness or lack of interest by the parents, said Wood and others who track participation.

The application is usually sent home in the backpacks and pockets of students, not the most efficient delivery system. At first glance, the form is intimidating -- a blur of questions about household income and participation in other federal programs. Pride plays a part, with some parents worried that participating will brand them as poor. Immigrants may worry -- incorrectly -- that participation will lessen their chances of becoming citizens.

Given those obstacles, school districts need to be creative, said Edie Mesick, executive director of the Nutrition Consortium of New York State. The Albany-based anti-hunger agency says numerous studies prove that well-nourished children are healthier, do better in school and have fewer behavioral problems.

"I am thrilled to hear that a school district is sufficiently concerned about the issue of school breakfast and school lunch to ensure that children and families were participating," Mesick said.

Participating parents say the program can be a convenience as well as a cost savings. At School 31 on Stanton Street one recent morning, several parents talked about how the breakfast and lunch program has helped them. The early childhood center is in a low-income neighborhood, and about 90 of the 340 students participate.

Lynda Morganti and her husband both work, but find their income stretched. Both of their children participate.

Parents deciding whether to participate "shouldn't feel embarrassed," Morganti said. For homes with more than one child, it's more cost-effective to let children eat at school than to buy the separate items to assemble three or four bag lunches at home every day, she said.

Another mother, Angie Gajewski, agreed.

"My child gets a free lunch and I don't feel branded; I think it's great," said Gajewski, who works as an aide at School 31. Her daughter Teela, 4, also eats breakfast in the school cafeteria before heading off to pre-kindergarten. "I don't have to worry about giving her breakfast because I know she's going to get it here," Gajewski said. "Especially when I have a teen-ager in high school and have to get all three of us out the door, it saves a lot of time."

Her son also could participate in the program at Kensington High but rarely bothers with a morning meal, Gajewski said, offering some insight to the district's inability to enroll more teen-agers.

"He usually gets up just in time to throw on his clothes and get out the door," she explained. "Sometimes he grabs it, sometimes he doesn't."

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