The number of kids receiving school lunches has increased substantially since Del Norte County Unified School District started taking part in a program allowing students at 11 out of 12 campuses to eat free.

Meanwhile, district officials continue to scramble to get families to turn in a form that determines how much money it receives for services to English language learners, foster and low-income students. That paperwork, known as the fair share form, is also necessary to maintain the Community Eligibility Provision program, which provides most district students with free breakfasts and lunches Superintendent Jeff Harris said Thursday.

“Our goal is not only to maintain the Community Eligibility program but to expand it to the high school,” Harris told the school board. “To make that happen, we’ve got to get these (forms) back. Otherwise, it may be a program that would have to go away.”

The district is encouraging parents to submit their fair share forms by Wednesday.

The Community Eligibility Provision program allows the district to serve meals at schools where 40 percent of the student population is eligible for free and reduced lunches. According to Deborah Kravitz, the district’s director of nutrition services, the number of students that are directly certified for free and reduced lunches through the CalFresh, CalWorks and MediCal programs drives the CEP percentage for the district.

As a result of its participation in the Community Eligibility Provision program, the district is projected to have served roughly 9,500 more lunches this month compared to October 2017, Kravitz said. Last month, Kravitz’s department served about 1,920 lunches per day, an increase of about 300 from September 2017.

“We served 36,424 lunches in September and so far we have served, up to today, 38,507 lunches,” Kravitz said Friday. “We’re projecting that about 45,000 lunches will be served in October as compared to 35,000 last October.”

The two campuses with the highest participation in the school lunch program include Crescent Elk Middle School and Redwood School, according to Kravitz. At Crescent Elk staff serve about 300 lunches a day, roughly 100 more than last year, she said. At Redwood School, staff also serve up to 300 meals per day, Kravitz said.

However the increase in school lunches is not without its challenges, Kravitz said.

“My staff is just working extremely hard, extra hard, to produce another several hundred meals a day out of that kitchen,” she said, referring to the district’s central kitchen. Where we have found some issues is having enough oven capacity in the central kitchen to cook and heat much of that food. We cook out of steam-jacketed kettles and we have reached the max in terms of what we can produce in those two kettles.”

Kravitz said she is pursuing a grant through the 2019 National School Lunch program to purchase two larger capacity kettles that would enable her department to increase the amount of food it cooks. Two new ovens are also being installed in the kitchen at Crescent Elk Middle School, which will allow the nutrition services department to cook up to another 100 meals at a time, she said.

However, it’s important that all the fair share forms are turned in to the district, Kravitz said.

A fair share form is a single-page form families fill out that signifies their children are eligible for a free or reduced lunch.

According to last year’s figures, which is counted through the first month of the 2018-19 school year, 67 percent of the district students were eligible for free and reduced lunches, Jeff Napier, assistant superintendent of business told the Triplicate. That percentage dropped to 61 percent after Oct. 1, 2018 because the district hadn’t received all the fair share forms, he said.

The number of Del Norte High School students turning in their free and reduced lunch applications also decreased this year, Napier said. Del Norte High is the only school not taking part in the Community Eligibility Provision program.

Napier said if parents don’t turn in their fair share forms or free and reduced lunch applications by Wednesday their students won’t be included in the statistics DNUSD is required to provide to the state and federal governments. This could result in a loss of $395,000 in revenue for the 2018-19 school year. That 61 percent would also stay in the calculation for the next two years, according to Napier, which could result in a loss of more than $1 million in revenue for the district for three years.

“Unfortunately if we don’t get those forms in, if we can’t get that unduplicated count (we’ll) end the Community Eligibility program next year,” Napier told the Triplicate. “We need to be able to provide services to our students...”

On Thursday, Harris told school board members that the fair share forms should have gone home with students as part of their first-day packet.

Trustee Frank Magarino noted that previous information the district put out promoting the Community Eligibility Program may have led to a misperception among parents as to whether it was necessary to turn any paperwork in to take advantage of the free meals.

“The information that’s getting out gives everybody the perception that they don’t need to sign up, that it’s already a done deal,” Magarino said. “People think I don’t need to do it ‘cause it’s already a done deal, which in fact is not the case.”

Michael Hawkins, the district’s director of grants and community outreach, said though the district did inform parents about the program the perception that “they didn’t really have to do anything after that” did result in a lack of forms being turned in. He said the district has been “hitting all the platforms a lot” to encourage parents to turn those forms in.

“We’ve been doing text messages to everybody,” Hawkins said. “We’ve been doing auto-dial calls. We’ve hit the website over and over and over on Facebook. We have radio ads in the morning saying get these fair share forms in. We need these last few days to kick it up and go at the speed we obviously haven’t been going at before.”

According to Kravitz, participation in the school lunch program is how her department gets funded. Under the CEP program, the nutrition services department is able to claim reimbursement for 86 percent of its meals under the free rate, or $3.39 each, she said. Fourteen percent of the meals her department claims are reimbursed to the district at the paid rate of 33 cents, she said.

“The more meals I can serve, the more revenue our program brings in,” Kravitz said.

However, the cost of food and labor has exceeded the amount of revenue the nutrition services department has brought to the district in the past, Kravitz said. Dollars from the general fund are used to make up that gap, she said.

When it comes to Del Norte High School taking part in the Community Eligibility Provision program, Kravitz said district officials, including the board of trustees, would need to determine whether the uptick in school lunch participation has allowed her department to break even or see an increase in revenue.

“You can imagine that if we were at 100 percent (participation) our program would be going like crazy and we would have brought the high school in,” she said. “Right now at that 86/14 kind of thing, our goal is to see how the program ends up financially and then to also re-evaluate where we stand in terms of our direct certifications. Those direct certifications are what drives the CEP percentage.”

Reach Jessica Cejnar at jcejnar@triplicate.com .

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