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The number of children in Sonoma County who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches during the school year has skyrocketed nearly 70 percent in the past decade, but how to reach those same kids during the summer remains a quandary to groups trying to feed the county's poorest children.

To meet the need over the summer, the Redwood Empire Food Bank, along with Santa Rosa City Schools, Healdsburg City Schools, the Boys & Girls Club and others have teamed up to provide a hot lunchtime meal to any child younger than 18 at sites across the county. The food bank's program began in 2004 with 15,000 meals served but this summer is expected to provide more than 110,000 meals.

"Those are big numbers for us, but we are still not even close to reaching the need," said Gail Atkins, program coordinator for the Redwood Empire Food Bank.

Despite outreach efforts, including emails sent from school officials, radio and newspaper ads in both Spanish and English and signs, only about 10 percent of the kids who qualify during the school year will actually be served by the summer program, backers have said.

Organizers have for years located food distribution sites at schools or in neighborhood parks where a high percentage of students are considered poor. Families of four that earn less than $43,500 annually qualify for reduced-priced lunches.

Hot meals are also distributed Monday through Friday at established times in parks, apartment complexes and summer camps, mostly by volunteers.

Unlike the school year program, no identification or proof of income is required and no questions are asked, but recipients must be younger than 18.

"They are in neighborhoods where most of the people qualify (for free or reduced lunch)," said Atkins of the 45 food bank-sponsored sites across the county. "We scattered them all over Sonoma County in pockets of poverty."

"It's totally open. That is the beauty of the summer program.," Atkins said.

Linda Gonzalez of Davis does not qualify as low income under the federal guidelines but when she is in Rohnert Park visiting her mother, she brings her three sons to the park for an occasional free, hot lunch.

"I asked last year if you have to be low income or is everybody welcome and they said 'Everybody is welcome,'" she said.

But for Alicia Villalobos, who brought six children — her own as well as a friend's — to a lunch this week in Rohnert Park, the offering is helpful for the family's finances. Her children use the free and reduced lunch program during the school year, she said.

And she praised the menu as healthy as children played on the monkey bars behind her.

"We make it an afternoon," she said.

The vast majority of the meals are made in Santa Rosa City Schools' central kitchen, where 20 employees put together salads, pastas, fruit — and one day a week, a cookie or bag of chips.

Supporters say it is a way to offer nutritional consistency for families that may struggle to put a well-balanced meal on the table.

"This is really yummy," incoming second-grader Wendy Garcia of Rohnert Park said as she ate her lasagna, apple and Cobb salad at Alicia Park this week.

Daniel Roncancio said the program is "extremely helpful" to his family's bottom line.

"A penny saved is a penny earned," he said as his son Gabriel devoured his lunch — salad first. "And it gives you a chance to meet other parents in the neighborhood. Obviously, everybody is going to be here when they can so it's nice to meet your neighbors."

The food bank program costs $356,000, a sum largely covered by the federal Summer Food Service Program that serves as an extension of the school-year food service program. Volunteers fill the gaps in food service by staffing distribution sites in parks and less formal locations.

"I don't really know what hunger looks like," volunteer Beth Craven said as she handed out meals Monday. "I have been interested and this summer it worked out."

Despite the lure of eating at the park and a free, hot meal, reaching kids once they have left the routine of the school year remains a challenge.

"They don't have the structure of the school year where kids are there, Monday through Friday, all day," said Jennifer McClendon, program director for Santa Rosa-based Network for a Healthy California.

"That is the hole the Redwood Empire Food Bank is filling," she said. "There is a need, especially for those families that rely on the schools to provide nutritious, balanced meals."

In 2011-12, more than 30,600 students qualified for a free or reduced price lunch in Sonoma County. That is up from 18,250 in 2001-02.

That spike comes at the same time the county's overall student population has fallen nearly 7 percent.

The 2011-12 numbers are the most up to date figures available from the state.

Across California, more than 3.4 million children qualified in 2011-12, 2.9 million in 2001-02.

"Change is happening for some folks but not everyone," said Itzul Gutierrez, program manager at the food bank. "The families are cutting costs when it comes to food and I think that it is something that has definitely affected children."

The surge in families qualifying for free lunches coincides with a spike in the rate of obesity among Sonoma County's schoolchildren.

More than one in three fifth-graders in Sonoma County is considered high risk in body composition, a measure of body fat. Among seventh-graders, 30 percent of kids are considered high risk and 23 percent of ninth-graders fall into that category.

Low-income and Latino students fare worse.

Forty-five percent of Latino fifth-graders are considered high risk, while 39 percent of seventh- and 30 percent of ninth-graders are in the same category.

Nutritious food can be more expensive and harder to find in some communities, Gutierrez said. It's in those communities that the summer food program has for years focused its lunch distribution operations.

"Those who are food insecure are at a greater risk (for obesity) because food with little or no nutritional value is often cheaper and easier to get," McClendon said. "What food is available and for what price?"

"It's a very complex issue," she said. "Oftentimes, lower income communities have less access to parks, grocery stores. If you compare southwest Santa Rosa to the east side of (Highway) 101, it's very different in terms of the number of grocery stores, the number of parks."

The summer lunch program must adhere to the same strict ingredient and caloric guidelines required by the federal government during the school year, said Bryan Nyberg, director of child nutrition services for Santa Rosa City Schools, Sonoma County's largest school district.

And some changes have come from common sense, he said.

"We have scaled back on the chips and treats because a lot of kids will go for that right off and then they won't eat the meal," he said.

>Even as Sonoma County's economy begins to recover, many families are still struggling and adding to the rolls of those who qualify for a free or reduced priced lunch.

"Even if it's stabilizing," Atkins said, "there are still more kids out there than we are reaching."

Staff Writer Kerry Benefield writes an education blog at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. She can be reached at 526-8671, kerry.benefield@press democrat.com or on Twitter @benefield.

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