On Monday, hundreds of kids across Sonoma County gathered at parks and libraries and outside apartment buildings, patiently waiting in line for a noontime meal of egg rolls, edamame, carrots and brown rice.
It marked the first day of Redwood Empire Food Bank’s free summer lunch program. Now in its 14th year, the program is designed to provide nutritional meals to kids around the county who, during the school year, count on free or reduced-price meals from their cafeterias.
“We have over 31,000 children (in Sonoma County) that are eligible for free and reduced-price meals, and when school’s out, that’s gone,” said Itzul Gutierrez, who heads the program. “That’s when we step in and open up these community sites to make sure kids receive nutritious, balanced meals during the summer.”
The food bank partners with Santa Rosa City Schools and Healdsburg Unified School District to provide more than 800 meals a day, cooked in the districts’ kitchens and then delivered to 31 sites around the county.
The program is funded largely by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which last year reimbursed the food bank for almost 70 percent of the $252,271 program. The remaining $77,000 was funded by donations to the food bank.
For kids, it’s entirely free, and there’s no advance sign-up or requirement that the student be a recipient of the free and reduced-price meal program.
To qualify their children for free meals at school, a family’s income must fall below 130 percent of federal poverty guidelines — currently $31,980 for a family of four. For reduced-price meals, the family’s income must fall below 185 percent of poverty guidelines, or $45,510 for a family of four.
Just over 44 percent of the public school students in Sonoma County qualified for free and reduced-price meals last year, according to the latest data available from the state Department of Education. Only seven counties in California had a lower proportion of students that were eligible for subsidized meals. Marin County had the fewest students qualify for USDA-funded lunches (25.8 percent) while Merced County had the most (80.6 percent).
“During the school year, a lot of kids don’t get the meals that they need for nutrition,” said Kenneth Bunns, director of child nutrition services and food operations for Santa Rosa City Schools, the county’s largest district, where 45 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches.
Bunns said the summer program by Redwood Empire Food Bank is a necessary extension of the school district’s work during the academic year to make sure students are well fed.
“That’s my mission and my purpose and my goal,” he said. “To ensure that every student, every kid who wants to be provided with a nutritious meal or a hot meal, they know they can go to our cafeterias and we’ll take care of them.”
Many of the summer sites also provide camp-like activities that low-income children might not have the opportunity to experience, said Gutierrez. Activities include music lessons, art classes, yoga and sports, and vary by location.
“It’s partly an effort to minimize the learning loss that happens over the summer, as well,” she said. “But hunger doesn’t take a vacation just because school’s out.”