According to a study this year by the Council of the Great City Schools, LAUSD’s secondary-student participation rate ranked 12th lowest among 20 of the country’s largest urban public school districts. Just 41.8 percent of LAUSD’s secondary students who qualified took advantage of the program, according to 2004-05 data from the council – far short of the 66.2percent in the district with highest participation. The council estimated LAUSD’s total participation rate at 53.3percent, well below the median 59.6percent nationwide and even further behind the highest rate of 89.1percent. “We’re very concerned about students not participating in the program because we know, in some cases, our students may not have a breakfast or lunch if it wasn’t for this program,” said Dennis Barrett, director of LAUSD’s food services. And for the district, if more students participated in the program, the additional federal funds would allow the LAUSD to achieve its meal-program goals. In lean financial times, the superintendent has been forced to go back into the budget this year to find $80million for cafeteria worker benefits approved by the school board. Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, said he believes the LAUSD is losing a “substantial amount.” “It is evidence that the district needs to work on both sides of the equation at the same time – both the revenue side and … nutrition side,” Casserly said. “They are pretty aware of their shortfall on the revenue side after they started to benchmark their participation rates against other major cities’ (rates).” District officials said they hope to significantly improve the participation rate by introducing an electronic system that would eliminate students’ use of paper tickets and offer more anonymity when kids get subsidized meals. The school board is expected next month to consider whether to buy the system, which would be rolled out at schools over the next couple of years. The district is also considering creating multiple lunch periods to gain shorter lunch lines, more available seating and better-quality food. In the past two years, the district also has changed the application form to apply to an entire household, rather than individual students, and it has started mailing applications directly to parents and making them available at school sites. District officials also have launched a campaign to encourage kids and parents to apply, and applications are sent in both English and Spanish, Barrett said. At about 135 schools with a high percentage of students eligible for free and reduced-price meals, a program allows parents to fill out applications only the first year, Barrett said. An additional 154 schools were added this year. “The administrative challenge for LAUSD is significant,” Garcia said. “Some may argue that’s not our role, but we have to be more aggressive in reaching out and targeting these students.” The district also has to determine a way to boost its lunchtime efficiencies at school sites that might have as many as 3,000 students vying to get meals from fewer than a dozen lunch lines in just 20 minutes. “The milk and fruit they get at these schools may be it,” she said.160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MORECoach Doc Rivers a “fan” from way back of Jazz’s Jordan Clarkson“It’s a reflection of a system that’s not fully functional.” While officials had no exact figure for the overall funds the LAUSD is losing out on, they noted that the district receives $2.07 to $2.47 for each free and reduced-price meal served. More than 500,000 LAUSD students are eligible, so if only about half participate, it equates to a loss of more than $100million per year. Officials attributed the dismal participation rate to a variety of factors, including shorter lunch periods, a social stigma associated with the special lunch tickets and long lines that dissuade many students from eating at all. “At the elementary level, the kids have a longer lunch period and more access to a meal, but in high school they have the tickets, but many choose not to use them, embarrassed that they are on free lunches,” LAUSD’s business manager, Michael Eugene, said. “There are households who may be eligible (but) choose not to be in the program. They could be in poverty, and we wouldn’t know.” Los Angeles Unified School District is forfeiting millions of dollars in federal funds because just half of its eligible students are taking advantage of a lunch program in which kids eat for free or at reduced prices, the Daily News has learned. While 74 percent of the district’s 700,000 students are estimated to be eligible for the federal program that subsidizes meals for low-income students, only 37percent of those in middle schools and high schools participate, LAUSD officials said. Despite higher participation by elementary students, the total rate lags far behind that in other large urban school districts – adding pressure on the LAUSD as it strains to boost food services on an increasingly tight budget. “What is outrageous is that this is an absolute necessity and a valuable service, … and I’m concerned we have a low participation rate because administrative costs are great, and we haven’t made the necessary investments,” school board President Monica Garcia said. “Here is a resource that would help our children to learn, and we’re not getting it done. It is a great reflection of the kind of change we need and how our overall mission of graduating more students can improve by taking advantage of resources available.