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Find out where to get a free lunch for children under 18 at refb.org/summerlunch2018

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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

Seeking refuge from the noontime sun at Santa Rosa’s Bayer Farm last week, children and parents gathered at colorful picnic tables partially shaded by a large tree as youngsters devoured a free lunch of beef nachos, cucumbers and orange slices.

The West Avenue location is one of 29 sites where free lunches are served to kids across Sonoma County as part of the Redwood Empire Food Bank’s summer program, an effort to fill gaps created as kids lose access to free and reduced-price lunch when school’s out.

“For some kids, this may be the only complete nutritional meal they receive during the day,” said Itzúl Gutierrez, children’s program manager for the food bank, which has sponsored the effort for more than a decade.

At Bayer Farm, about 120 children come each weekday for lunch, volunteer Vicki Hernandez said through a translator. Some days, the 2-acre farm also offers learning activities including Thursday’s volunteer-led class about worms and compost.

“(The program is important) especially when kids are of low income and have limited resources,” she said.

For Jodi Gutierrez, who lives across the street and brings her grandsons almost daily to the park, it’s a welcome benefit. Her grandkids, who are in kindergarten and second grade, both take part in the free lunch program at Sheppard Accelerated Elementary School, she said.

“It just helps just to be able to come here and not have to worry,” she said as her shy 4-year-old grandson ducked behind her. “I mostly come for them to be able to play.”

Maria Zamora, 9, said she comes “all the time,” but she enjoys pizza days the most. She brought her stuffed moose toy, Chocolate, with her Thursday.

At the most recent count in mid-June, nearly 10,776 meals had already been served across the county, supported by about 150 volunteers, said Gutierrez. She anticipates that by the program’s end date Aug. 10, more than 40,000 lunches will be served on weekdays — an increase of 4,000 from 2017.

Any child under 18 can get lunch, with no advanced sign-up required. The lunch sites also offer activities such as crafts. A bike-powered blender where kids can make smoothies rotates through the locations. Some also offer free produce and vegetables once a week.

Across Sonoma County, 31,000 children qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches, Gutierrez said. A family of four must make less than $46,435 annually to qualify for such programs, according to USDA guidelines.

The program costs the Redwood Empire Food Bank each summer about $165,000, which is reimbursed by the USDA and donations.

This summer is the first since October’s fires ravaged Sonoma County, but it’s still unclear what impact that is having, if any, on the program, Gutierrez said.

Across the county, the food bank still operates 10 distribution centers to serve those impacted directly by the fires, said Kevin West, a food bank spokesman. The need for help still exists for those who lost homes, were temporarily out of work, or whose places of employment were destroyed. As an example, West cited the story of two sisters and their mother who lived together. All lost their jobs when McDonald’s burned in Coffey Park, he said.

“Even if people just lost work for three weeks, it could take months to recover from that,” he said. “When kids in school get free lunch and all the sudden summer comes and they’ve lost access to that, the financial burden is definitely something people struggle with.”

The bulk of the food is cooked in the Santa Rosa City Schools’ kitchen and delivered by their staff members to designated locations at parks, libraries and apartment complexes, while a few sites are served by the Healdsburg Unified School District, Gutierrez said.

Santa Rosa City Schools, the county’s largest district, also cooks as many as 1,500 meals a day that are served in its own free lunch programs across eight campuses, said Kenneth Bunns, director of child nutrition services. It will debut a food truck next year to expand its reach, he said.

“Hunger never takes a vacation,” he said. “Kids are hungry all the time.”

You can reach Staff Writer Hannah Beausang at 707-521-5214 or hannah.beausang@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @hannahbeausang.

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