Groups struggle to satisfy growing summer lunch needs of Sonoma County kids

The number of children in Sonoma County who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches during the school year has skyrocketed nearly 70 percent in the past decade, but how to reach those same kids during the summer remains a quandary to groups trying to feed the county's poorest children.

To meet the need over the summer, the Redwood Empire Food Bank, along with Santa Rosa City Schools, Healdsburg City Schools, the Boys & Girls Club and others have teamed up to provide a hot lunchtime meal to any child younger than 18 at sites across the county. The food bank's program began in 2004 with 15,000 meals served but this summer is expected to provide more than 110,000 meals.

"Those are big numbers for us, but we are still not even close to reaching the need," said Gail Atkins, program coordinator for the Redwood Empire Food Bank.

Despite outreach efforts, including emails sent from school officials, radio and newspaper ads in both Spanish and English and signs, only about 10 percent of the kids who qualify during the school year will actually be served by the summer program, backers have said.

Organizers have for years located food distribution sites at schools or in neighborhood parks where a high percentage of students are considered poor. Families of four that earn less than $43,500 annually qualify for reduced-priced lunches.

Hot meals are also distributed Monday through Friday at established times in parks, apartment complexes and summer camps, mostly by volunteers.

Unlike the school year program, no identification or proof of income is required and no questions are asked, but recipients must be younger than 18.

"They are in neighborhoods where most of the people qualify (for free or reduced lunch)," said Atkins of the 45 food bank-sponsored sites across the county. "We scattered them all over Sonoma County in pockets of poverty."

"It's totally open. That is the beauty of the summer program.," Atkins said.

Linda Gonzalez of Davis does not qualify as low income under the federal guidelines but when she is in Rohnert Park visiting her mother, she brings her three sons to the park for an occasional free, hot lunch.

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