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Facing low enrollment numbers, Santa Rosa City Schools steps up efforts to provide free or reduced-price lunches to students

Distance learning has created barriers for families who qualify for a federal program that provides free and reduced-price lunches. Sonoma County’s largest school district is increasing its outreach, signing families up at lunch distribution sites.|

Santa Rosa City Schools’ free meal pickup locations, times

Santa Rosa City Schools distributes breakfast and lunch at eight schools one day a week. To apply for the program or get more information, visit www.srcschools.org/Page/4423

Mondays

Elsie Allen High, 599 Bellevue Ave.

6:45 - 9 AM

11 AM - 1 PM

4:30 - 7 PM

Piner High, 1700 Fulton Road

6:45 - 9 AM

11 AM - 1 PM

Tuesdays

Monroe Elementary, 2567 Marlow Road

6:45 - 9 AM

11 AM - 1 PM

4:30 - 7 PM

Wednesdays

Lincoln Elementary, 850 W. 9th St.

6:45 - 9 AM

11 AM - 1 PM

4:30 PM - 7 PM

Lewis Ed Center, 2230 Lomitas Ave.

6:45 - 9 AM

11 AM - 1 PM

Thursdays

Brook Hill Elementary, 1850 Vallejo St.

6:45 - 9 AM

11 AM - 1 PM

Cook Middle, 2480 Sebastopol Road

6:45 - 9 AM

11 AM - 1 PM

Fridays

Albert Biella Elementary, 2140 Jennings Ave.

6:45 - 9 AM

11 AM - 1 PM

4:30 - 7 PM

Source: Santa Rosa City Schools

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.

“Luckily our parents are comfortable calling our main office for support,” she said. “The staff in our Main Office have been providing families with technology support, guidance and walking them through anything and everything online. Just like anything — some people are more tech savvy than others.”

They have also stationed iPads outside the main office. Applications can be submitted there, too, Monday said.

But there have been some miscues, too.

On Monday, an email was sent to district families asking for applications to be submitted: “This is a friendly reminder that your free lunch status will end on Sept. 23, 2020. Please reapply as soon as possible to continue to receive free meals at school.”

It was followed by another email hours later asking recipients to disregard: “Please disregard the last email concerning your child’s eligibility. It was sent out in error. If you have already applied, please do not reapply. If this does not apply to you please ignore!”

’We are very optimistic’

This week the district unveiled a new distribution schedule meant to help working parents arrange pickups at various times every weekday. Pickups are now offered daily from 6:45 a.m. to 7 p.m. at eight locations.

“After work and before work is also going to help parents,” Edson said. “We are very optimistic that this is going to help us help more families to get enrolled.”

At those sites, district staff, all of whom are bilingual, will be on hand to fill out applications on the spot, Burke said.

“We will get you squared away in about 10 minutes,” he said. “It’s a very convenient process. It doesn’t have to be done online if you don’t want to do it online.”

“I think the missing piece is that human interaction,” he said.

The district, along with school districts across the nation, got a welcome reprieve Monday when the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced it would extend support for summer lunch programs into the fall despite earlier warnings the program would cut off key components in September.

Now, families can continue to pick up free food at school, regardless of whether their child is enrolled there, through a federally funded program to reduce hunger in poor families. The USDA program, which normally runs over summer vacation, was opened early in March when schools were shuttering in the face of the coronavirus. It has run ever since.

The extension announced Monday means that meals can be offered locally to just-graduated 18-year-olds as well as to preschoolers and toddlers, Burke said. However, families must enroll in the program by Oct. 31 or the district will lose out on federal funds tied to the number of people it serves.

"This gets us back to 18 and younger,“ he said. ’’Kids in preschool? ’Here you go.’ That’s amazing. That is really, really exciting.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @benefield.

Santa Rosa City Schools’ free meal pickup locations, times

Santa Rosa City Schools distributes breakfast and lunch at eight schools one day a week. To apply for the program or get more information, visit www.srcschools.org/Page/4423

Mondays

Elsie Allen High, 599 Bellevue Ave.

6:45 - 9 AM

11 AM - 1 PM

4:30 - 7 PM

Piner High, 1700 Fulton Road

6:45 - 9 AM

11 AM - 1 PM

Tuesdays

Monroe Elementary, 2567 Marlow Road

6:45 - 9 AM

11 AM - 1 PM

4:30 - 7 PM

Wednesdays

Lincoln Elementary, 850 W. 9th St.

6:45 - 9 AM

11 AM - 1 PM

4:30 PM - 7 PM

Lewis Ed Center, 2230 Lomitas Ave.

6:45 - 9 AM

11 AM - 1 PM

Thursdays

Brook Hill Elementary, 1850 Vallejo St.

6:45 - 9 AM

11 AM - 1 PM

Cook Middle, 2480 Sebastopol Road

6:45 - 9 AM

11 AM - 1 PM

Fridays

Albert Biella Elementary, 2140 Jennings Ave.

6:45 - 9 AM

11 AM - 1 PM

4:30 - 7 PM

Source: Santa Rosa City Schools

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

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