Sonoma County libraries’ free meals close summer nutrition gap

On a Tuesday morning in mid-summer at the Sebastopol Regional Library, volunteers from the Redwood Empire Food Bank exchange two full hot and cold cooler bags for two empty ones. A library volunteer wheels the bags into a community room that is often brimming with toddlers enjoying Family Storytime or teens crafting “maker” projects. Today, kids and their families will trickle into the room again, but this time, they’ve come for a free and nutritious lunch.

For the second year in a row, the Sebastopol Library is partnering with the Redwood Empire Food Bank to fill in the summertime gap with free lunches and free books. And the connection between food and learning is not a coincidence.

“If you want to be at the top of the self-actualization pyramid, you can’t have a rumbling stomach,” said Sebastopol Library Branch Manager Mathew Rose.

In fact, the correlation between hunger and school achievement has been well documented. Studies cited by the National Education Association have shown that hungry children have lower math scores and are more likely to repeat a grade, come to school late or miss it entirely. This, plus high rates of childhood obesity, have spurred nutritionallyregulated school breakfast and lunch programs for decades. But what happens when school is out for the summer?

Unfortunately, many students who rely on these meals for much of their daily nutrition go hungry, according to the Redwood Empire Food Bank, a sponsor of the summer lunch program in Sonoma County for 13 years. The meals, which follow USDA nutritional guidelines, are prepared in Santa Rosa City Schools and Healdsburg Unified School District kitchens. Whenever possible, the food is sourced locally from farms and bakeries and the kid-friendly meals attempt to accommodate everyone - even kids with dietary restrictions.

“We want to get it right,” said Itzul Gutierrez, senior programs manager at the Redwood Empire Food Bank. “We have a commitment to helping as many kids as possible.”

The food bank sponsors free summer lunches for kids 18 and under at over 40 sites throughout the county including low-income housing complexes, parks and the Greater Boys and Girls Club. (The sites must be near a school that is eligible for the school lunch program.) However, Itzul said, the eight participating libraries are especially important places to serve children.

“The cool thing about libraries is that they’re accessible for the whole community,” she said. “They have summer reading programs, they’re air conditioned on hot days and the library can get more patrons to visit.”

As Rose explained, libraries are already working to fulfill summer learning objectives and prevent “summer slide” for students through early literacy programs like Storytime and the Five Book Challenge. The addition of free lunches to these activities fit perfectly into the library’s mission to bring information, ideas and people together to build a stronger community.

“Developing and sharing ideas, seeking and utilizing information is made easier when basic human needs have already been met,” Rose said.

According to the Redwood Empire Food Bank Hunger Index, an estimated 35 million meals were missed in Sonoma County last year. And West County is not immune to these challenges of poverty and food scarcity.

“We’re battling the misperception of West County being flush with wine money or other medicinal money,” said Rose. “Fact-checking that assumption of wealth is important.”

The lunch program at the Sebastopol library alone averages about 20 kids a day, he said. This year, Rose learned that the lunch program could achieve a higher consistent attendance throughout the week if early literacy programming was scheduled around lunchtime. This year, they hold Family Storytime on Tuesdays at 10:30 a.m., PerlerPalooza for grades seven-12 on Tuesdays at 2 p.m. and Cuentos y Cantos (bilingual story and play time) on Fridays at 11 a.m.

On this particular Tuesday, volunteer and Santa Rosa Junior College student Margaret Ahvenainen was preparing tables and handing out lunches to a younger crowd - most of whom came for Storytime.

Santa Rosa residents Kathleen Lennon and her 4-year-old daughter, Ana, go to Storytime at all the libraries, but Ana loves the crafts that accompany the free lunch.

Lennon said the stories and books make staying for lunch very convenient. And, she said, there’s an added social element that benefits selective eaters like her daughter.

“When they’re in a group they see each other eating and they pick up the habit from other kids,” she said.

Tuesday’s lunch is pizza, carrots, apple slices and milk, but if the pizza runs out or vegetarians need something else, there is usually a grilled cheese sandwich on hand for a substitution.

The Diaz family of Sebastopol was back for a second time. Sofia Diaz and her three children - Elizabeth (11), Mia (4) and Jose (8) - said they come to the library often for a quiet spot to do homework or use computers. And the lunches they get there, said Elizabeth, are even better than what they get at school, where she was once offered a “green” hot dog.

Another draw to the lunch program, said Rose, is that it’s very casual. There is no paperwork to fill out and no other requirements besides being 18 years old or younger. He said this fact helps eliminate any stigma that might be connected to the experience and makes it a welcoming place for all members of the library’s community, which stretches from Graton to Petaluma.

The Sonoma County Library system, like the Sebastopol branch, has “enthusiastically embraced the project,” said Rose. The California State Library helps out with marketing and publicity and regional library staff members help train the volunteers who set up, distribute and clean up the meals. It requires a bit of additional work, said Rose, but the benefit is worth it.

Rose’s own daughter, Calliope, 3, loves coming in to get her “school lunch” with her grandmother, Sheila McCaleb.

“She socializes with other kids, which helps get her ready for going to school,” said McCaleb, “but her favorite part is getting to read books.”

Lunch at the Sebastopol Library is offered Tuesdays-Fridays from noon-1 p.m., June 7-Aug.5. For more information about the program, visit: and

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