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Thousands more North Coast students to get free lunch under form change

Alina Ruys, 3, and Cadence, 5, Ruys dig in to their meals at the free lunch program at Logan's Place on Friday, June 6, 2014.

JEREMY HAY , THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The removal of some red tape has helped enroll several thousand more North Coast students in the federal government’s free lunch program this school year.

The fix — which involved paperwork changes — allowed an additional 2,348 Sonoma County students who already were eligible to enroll in the program and get free lunches, according to data released in December.

“It’s had big results: 326,000 kids statewide who wouldn’t have otherwise received free lunch (and in some cases, breakfast) at school now have access to a nutritious, healthy meals,” said state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg.

Between Mendocino, Lake, Humboldt and Marin counties, an additional 2,738 were able to enroll, McGuire said.

McGuire and state Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, led the effort to fix the problem, stemming from rules changes on application forms made eight years ago.

Child welfare advocates applauded the move.

“We know that healthy kids are school-ready kids so having kids who are eligible for free lunch in the program is not only a way to reduce hunger but improve health, nutrition and education,” said Alfredo Perez, executive director of First 5 Sonoma County, a tobacco-tax-funded agency that works on children’s health and education issues.

Under federal rules, students from families that receive state food assistance automatically are eligible for free or reduced price lunch, depending on their income. In Sonoma County, 33,336 of 71,108 students in kindergarten through 12th grade were in the lunch program in the 2014-15 school year.

The fix involved rolling back a state change that required a student’s address included on free-lunch application forms, a field not mandated by federal rules. An unknown number of students, possibly thousands, were consequently left off the eligibility list because of discrepancies in addresses or other errors, McGuire said.

“This move is going to help improve kids’ health and it’s going to help them succeed in the classroom — and they should have been on it all along,” McGuire said.

Staff Writer Jeremy Hay blogs about education at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach him at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jeremyhay.