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Redwood Empire Food Bank’s Summer Lunch program helps children in need

Summer can be a time of hunger for some children and teens in Sonoma County.

When schools close in June, thousands of kids lose access to free and reduced-cost lunches. As it does every summer, the Redwood Empire Food Bank is working to close that gap.

From June 7 through Aug. 6, the nonprofit is offering free, healthy breakfasts and lunches to children up to 18 years old. The meals will be served at three dozen locations around the county.

Last year, with COVID-19 still rampant, the food bank cut the number of Summer Lunch program distribution sites to 20. But it still served around 85,000 meals — many thousands more than in a normal summer, said Allison Goodwin, the director of programs for the organization.

That spike resulted from loosened regulations. Before the pandemic, the United States Department of Agriculture required that every child receiving a free meal be present during that 30-minute meal distribution period. They had to sit there and eat at the site, said Goodwin.

With the onset of COVID-19, those restrictions went away. The Summer Lunch program transitioned to grab-and-go breakfast and lunch, offering care packages of groceries for family that could be taken home to prepare and eat. Parents were allowed to pick up the meals at drive-thru sites. The kids no longer had to be present. Now, said Goodwin, a parent “can leave an older teenager home while the baby’s napping, then drive over and get the meals for the week.”

During the pandemic, the Redwood Empire Food Bank has been able to “’bundle” meals — breakfast and lunch — for all five weekdays. “So we’re able to feed more people, and provide more food” than under the previous model, she said.

With those relaxed restrictions, the food bank was able to serve 94% more meals to families in need than in previous years, “We’re crossing our fingers that those waivers don’t’ go away,” said Goodwin. “We’re advocating for that.”

The Redwood Empire Food Bank is reimbursed by the state of California for a portion of those free meals, which are prepared and transported to the sites by the Santa Rosa City Schools.

The free meals can only be offered near schools deemed low-income by the state’s Department of Education. But children are welcome at any site, regardless of whether they attend school in that district, said Maria Fuentes, manager of the food bank’s Every Child, Every Day program.

About a third of the 36 Summer Lunch sites have been “co-located,” said Goodwin, at places where the food bank is already distributing groceries for families in need. That year-round operation is separate from the Summer Lunch program.

Some people have come in to pick up groceries and realized they they can get Summer Lunch meals, too, she said. “So they’ve been pleasantly surprised.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @ausmurph88.

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