Food bank expects to serve more than 100,000 free lunches

Seven-year-old Esmerelda Guzman cranked away on the bike pedals and tried to stay on a seat that was a bit too high for her.

But her spinning legs made the blender affixed to the back of the stationary bike go, and before she was finished, she had spun her way to a fruit smoothie.

"You do rounds, fast," she said, cheeks red from the effort at Southwest Community Park in Santa Rosa on Monday afternoon.

Guzman and scores of other children and their families turned out for one of five kick-off events in Sonoma County this week for the free summer lunch program.

The program was created to bridge the summertime gap when children who receive free or reduced-price lunches at school might not have access to a well-rounded midday meal, said Gail Atkins, program coordinator for the Redwood Empire Food Bank, which oversees meals at 48 sites across the county.

In Sonoma County, 45 percent of all students qualified for a free or reduced-price lunch in 2010-11, up from 23 percent in 2000-01.

The food bank's summer program started in 2004 with 15,000 meals served. Last year, 102,000 meals were served.

"Ever since the recession, we have just grown astronomically," Atkins said.

Across the state, more than 57 percent -- 6.1 million -- of California's school children qualified in 2010-11, up from 47 percent in 2000-01.

The food bank is the lead agency in Sonoma County, serving in 48 locations. Meals are also coordinated through the Boys and Girls Club, Santa Rosa City Schools and others.

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