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Schools hungry for federal meal funding

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As school districts throughout the state are struggling with ways to provide hot meals to students, Jefferson Elementary School District in Daly City may contract out its meal service to save money.

Enrique Navas, assistant superintendent of business services for the Jefferson elementary district, said the district is considering the switch because it could also potentially increase participation.

“We need to provide these meals to our students so they can be in the classroom and learn,” he said. “But for a number of years we’ve had declining enrollment. We hope a new service can increase participation.”

More than 6,700 pupils were enrolled in the district’s 14 elementary and middle schools last school year, according the state Department of Education.

Of those, 56 percent are on free and reduced lunch, a program that provides meals to low-income ­students.

Navas said the district is starting discussions, but no decision has been made.

State Superintendent of Schools Jack O’Connell recently joined with Health and Human Services Agency Secretary Kimberly Belshé and California Department of Food and Agriculture Secretary A.G. Kawamura to encourage the federal government to continue funding student nutrition programs across the country.

“These programs are vital in our efforts to prevent childhood obesity [and] increase academic achievement,” he said in a released statement. “Often these child nutrition programs provide the only food some children consume each day.”

Congress is considering reauthorizing the Child Nutrition Act, originally passed in 1996, which expired Sept. 30. Congress must reauthorize the act every five years.

The federal program for free and reduced lunch is based on the income level of student’s parents.

The district is reimbursed about $2.28 per meal that is given to a pupil that qualifies for free and reduced lunch, according to the federal Food and Nutrition Service. The cost for a child to purchase the meal is $2.75.

Navas said because of the economy, more students are qualifying for the free and reduced program.

“There’s a lot of unemployment,” he said. “So there’s a lot of need and that increases the burden for us to provide a warm, nutritious meal.”

Jefferson Elementary School District board President Adam Duran said if the federal government does not provide funding for the programs, the burden will be in the school district’s hands.

“It’s very difficult on school districts statewide when the state and federal government mandate programs and then fail to provide the funds to support it,” he said. “Then these mandates encroach on general funds.”

Dishing out meals

Jefferson Elementary School District lunch program:

Number of students: 6,700

Students on free and reduced lunch: 56 percent

Current lunch program: Offers hot entree and salad bar each day for each student

Cost for a meal: $2.75 for full-paying students

Total reimbursement from the government for each meal: $2.28

District choices: Continue to invest and hope to break even or contract out services to another provider in hopes of increasing choices and participation

Source: Jefferson Elementary School District

akoskey@sfexaminer.com