Facing low enrollment numbers, Santa Rosa City Schools steps up efforts to provide free or reduced-price lunches to students
An unexpected consequence of the coronavirus pandemic and the closure of school campuses has been a precipitous drop in applications for a Santa Rosa City Schools program that provides students with free and reduced-price lunches.
Completed applications are way down — approximately 4,000 have been submitted for the current school year, down from nearly 7,500 last year — despite the need being demonstrably higher, according to staffers doling out grab-and-go lunches and breakfasts last spring and through the summer.
The district has served approximately 600,000 meals since schools shut down for in-person instruction on March 13 and moved students into online classes, according to district deputy superintendent Rick Edson. Over the summer, it distributed nearly 261,000 meals.
“That is way above normal,” he said.
But in the new school year that began Aug. 17, thousands who regularly participate have not yet completed the annual enrollment form to continue with the program.
To qualify for a free lunch at K-12 schools in California, a family of four must earn less than $34,060 a year. For a reduced-price lunch, that annual income must be less than $48,470.
Last year, 55.5% of the district’s more than 5,000 elementary-aged students and 39% of its middle and high school students qualified for the program. Countywide, 45% of all students, both elementary and high school, qualified.
And those numbers represent more than two meals a day for students. They play a critical role in determining how much money the district will receive in federal funding, including Title 1 funds, the largest federal aid program for public schools in the nation.
That, and the need displayed in the numbers of people who showed up for bag lunches through the spring and summer, have pushed district officials to expand outreach programs, adjust pickup times to encourage more face-to-face interaction and send emails, calls and in some cases, texts, to help families with applications.
’Our numbers just blew up’
In the early days of distance learning last spring, the district officials set up grab-and-go lunch and breakfast pickups midday at eight campuses with both high enrollment numbers and in locations spread throughout the district. Turnout was low. They added more shifts. The numbers were still low.
It was when they consolidated pickups — packaging five breakfasts and five lunches into one allotment — that district officials not only saw the families they had expected based on enrollment in the program, but numbers that exceeded it.
“We went to once a week and our numbers just blew up,” said Ed Burke, the district’s director of Child Nutrition Services.
Burke attributed the drop in participation in the spring to a number of factors: Wariness about exposure to the virus, fluctuating work shifts and the stresses of navigating distance learning at home.
“It was ’I’m worried about food, I’m worried about rent. Do I really have the resources to make this trip several times a week? Do I really have the gas money to make this trip?’ ” he said. “And the safety piece was really there, too.”
Officials were initially unprepared for how severely families would be disconnected from schools when the district moved to online classes. Without school staff or a trusted teacher to help them navigate an application for the meal program, things went quiet. While families drove away from food distribution sites with meals and a paper application to remain in the program, it did not guarantee it would be returned.
“Traditionally when we do meal applications, they do the registration pack at the school and someone is across the table from you,” Burke said.
Concerns about language or privacy — information on the form is confidential — could be talked through with a staffer.
“On some level, it has always been an issue for us as the forms (even the handwritten ones) ask for a lot of personal information and have been confusing,” Comstock Middle School Principal Laura Hendrickson said in an email. “We have always made a concerted effort each year to help remind families to fill out the forms. We have also spent a lot of time going through the forms with parents to help them fill it out. COVID complicates things since we can't see parents in person to sit down with them and help them.”
At Comstock, where nearly 8 out of 10 students on campus qualified for the food program last year, five staffers have been reaching out to families to assist with enrollment, Hendrickson said.
At Brook Hill Elementary School, where nearly 82% of students qualify for the program, office staff has played a crucial role with parent engagement, Principal Indy Monday said in an email.