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In San Diego County, $145 Million For School Meals Goes Untapped

Students stand in line at a high school cafeteria, May 20, 2015.

Photo by Megan Burks

Above: Students stand in line at a high school cafeteria, May 20, 2015.

San Diego County children who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches at school are also eligible for federally subsidized breakfasts, after-school suppers and summer lunches. But a new report from the San Diego Hunger Coalition says $145 million in federal funds for those meals went untapped during the 2015-2016 school year.

The report says districts and service providers are not offering those meals — or they are paying out of pocket for food the federal government would cover.

“A lot of the after-school programs that we’ve talked to are currently purchasing snacks through their own general budget. They’re raising money for that,” said Anahid Brakke, the Hunger Coalition’s executive director.

“We really want people to think about how a smaller, upfront investment of time and resources to get a federal nutrition program started is more sustainable year after year,” she said. “And it’s much more cost-effective, and much more broad-sweeping.”

The nonprofit spent a full year analyzing just how much money went untapped by local communities and why. The result is a comprehensive report that spells out the missed opportunities and offers personalized recommendations for each school district in the county.

“What we’re seeing is, with a county as big as ours, the way that this has to happen is communities taking care of their own,” Brakke said.

She is convening school and nonprofit representatives Wednesday to present the data and set five-year goals for the region, such as increasing participation in school breakfast programs from 40 percent of eligible children to 56 percent.

The reasons schools have not adopted the programs vary, Brakke said. For community nonprofits that offer after-school programs, the process of claiming federal meal reimbursements can be intimidating. Brakke said sometimes it can be as simple as matching those nonprofits with school districts or food banks that already claim reimbursements and will serve meals at their facility.

Another reason: margins are thin for school food service departments. Brakke said it can be difficult, but not impossible, to provide balanced meals at the reimbursement rate. For example, the government pays $3.16 for after-school suppers.

And while some school districts are already offering subsidized lunches, Brakke said small tweaks could serve more students and up the amount they are reimbursed. For rural school districts that rely on busing, the research showed participation in existing breakfast programs would improve if schools switch from serving meals before school to offering breakfast in the classroom. Many schools already do this; children grab food items as they file into class and eat at their desks during the morning lesson.

If the region does not add these additional meal programs, more money could go untapped in the coming years. The governor last month signed Senate Bill 138, which is expected to grow the number of children participating in federal meal assistance. It requires districts to participate in a federal program that provides universal free lunches in schools with high percentages of qualifying students. Many already do, but it is not required.

It also encourages schools to link free and reduced-price lunch enrollment with the state’s Medi-Cal data to automatically enroll eligible children whose parents did not send in an application.

Noun Abdelaziz, a senior at Scripps Ranch High School and member of the Youth Advisory Council for UC San Diego’s Center for Community Health, said that could help enroll more immigrant and refugee students who fall through the cracks because of language barriers.

“Growing up, I had to fill out applications at a very young age because my parents did not speak English,” Abdelaziz said. “If I experienced this, what if another student struggled to fill out an application just to be able to eat, just to be able to focus in class and have a normal meal just like every other kid?”

The Hunger Coalition estimates one in five San Diego County children live in households without enough food. Its report on how communities can better serve them is due out in January.

San Diego County children were eligible for more federally-subsidized meals than schools and community nonprofits served up during the 2015-16 school year.

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