Every student enrolled at a Del Norte Unified School District K12 school will be able to eat breakfast and lunch for free when classes resume in August.

The district is expanding its participation in the federal non-pricing meal service Community Eligibility Program to include Del Norte High School for the 2019-2020 school year. But parents must complete and turn the Fair Share Survey, indicating if their child is eligible for free or reduced lunches, said Deborah Kravitz, DNUSD's nutrition services director.

"This survey is very important because even though we have this great news that all students enrolled are eligible to receive a healthy breakfast and lunch at no charge, we need to help ensure adequate funding is available to support our educational programs," she said. "It is critical that families still submit a Fair Share form, and this will be something that will come in their back-to-school packet or it can be done online."

The Fair Share Survey allows Del Norte Unified to receive state and federal dollars that pay for programs tied to the Local Control Funding Formula and other funding sources like Title I and Title II, according to a letter the district will send to parents.

District officials hope to avoid a repeat of last year’s misunderstanding that nearly ended its participation in the community eligibility provision program. A decline in the number of parents turning in fair share forms caused a perceived drop in the number of students eligible for free and reduced meals from 67 percent to 61 percent.

An ad campaign last fall brought the percentage back to 67 percent, though district officials were sure that number was higher. Currently 69 percent of Del Norte Unified students are eligible for free and reduced meals, according to Kravitz.

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. In addition to parents filling out an application for free and reduced lunches, students who receive services through CalFresh, CalWorks and MediCal are directly certified to receive free and reduced lunches, Kravitz said.

Last year when the district introduced the CEP program at its K8 school sites, student participation in its breakfast and lunch program skyrocketed, Kravitz said.

"We went from an average of about 110 to 120 lunches the previous school year to 300 to 360 lunches a day at Redwood," she said. "What we found was our participation just grew significantly and we weren't sure how this was all going to work out last year. Now that we have a year under our belt, we feel a little more comfortable with the Community Eligibility Provision, we have spent quite a bit of money to increase our capacity to produce meals."

Because of the jump in the number of students taking advantage of the district's meals breakfast and lunch program, it bought new steam jacketed kettles for its central kitchen at Crescent Elk Middle School, a $78,000 investment, as well as new ovens, Kravitz said. Joe Hamilton and Redwood School also needed new hot holding cabinets, she said.

"How this is all going to unfold at the high school at this point we're not sure because we can only anticipate or guess what the increase in participation will be," Kravitz said.

Other equipment upgrades include new refrigerators and refurbished refrigerators, Superintendent Jeff Harris told school board members during a budget study session on Wednesday. He said district officials will have to wait and see if further upgrades were necessary.

Despite the increase in spending for new equipment, expanding the CEP program to include the high school benefits students who in previous years "hit a wall" where they had to pay for everything, Kravitz said. It also eliminates the stigma students may feel when their peers realize they can't pay for their school meals, she said.

"All of that goes away with the Community Eligibility Provision," she said. "Everyone is equal. Everyone eats for free."

Parents and guardians can learn more about the CEP program and fill out a Fair Share Survey form by visiting delnortenutrition.org. For more information, call the district's Nutrition Services Department at (707) 464-0246.

Reach Jessica Cejnar at jcejnar@triplicate.com .