This year’s Free Summer Lunch Program for kids and teens begins this week in locations throughout the city of Oakland. The program was established to provide breakfast and lunch to people age 18 and under to fill in the gap that is often left in the number of meals kids receive once the school semester ends.
Starting this week, community members may call a toll free number established by the Alameda County Community Food Bank to find a location in their area that is participating in the free lunch program. Community members will find lunch programs set up at recreation centers, libraries, churches and on school campuses holding summer classes.
The lunch program offers support for families who are experiences budget constraints and who rely on free school meal programs during the rest of the year. The food program focuses on providing fruit, vegetables and water with every meal to make sure the children are properly hydrated.
“Sadly, it’s true that this is the only meal that some kids get,” said Carmela Chase, program specialist with the City of Oakland’s Summer Lunch Program. “I know it sounds dramatic, but I am not being dramatic. There are a lot of kids that are hungry here in Oakland. There are a lot of families that are having a really hard time.”
During a press conference held earlier this week, state Department of Education Nutrition Services representative Sandip Kaur announced that the City of Oakland has 90 approved summer sites and OUSD another 53; she said that it was wonderful to see so many passionate people work together to help feed hungry children.
“Between the two, there are 144 sites where children can access nutritious meals,” Kaur said. “The sad fact is that across the country and in California, the number of sites is going down. It is wonderful to see that Oakland is reversing that trend and is increasing the number [of participants] from last year.”
Together the city and the school district serve approximately 200,000 lunches during the two-month summer period, said Chase. “The district provides breakfast and lunch and in some locations the city offers a P.M. snack.”
“In the last decade, the size of the program has more than doubled because the need is there,” said Sandy Taylor, a representative of the Children and Youth Services Department for the City of Oakland. She said the rise in demand is a reflection of a rise in unemployment and poverty in Oakland. “Moms bring in babies and toddlers just for lunch,” she said.
The United States Department of Agriculture sponsors summer lunch programs across the United States and the state Department of Education is the administrator of the program in California overseeing its operations.
“The OUSD supplies summer lunches to schools that have summer school programs and it provides a breakfast and a lunch to the kids. The City of Oakland fills in areas where there is no summer school. It works with any organization this is willing to open their doors, follow the program rules and take the training,” said Chase.
This includes recreation centers, faith-based organizations and libraries that want to participate in the program. Staffers at organizations that want to host free summer meals participate in a short training session on food safety and learn about point-of-service meal counting, meaning the meal is counted when it is placed in the child’s hands in order to ensure an accurate count of the number of meals served.
The Alameda County Community Food Bank partners with the city in two ways to assist with the free summer lunch program—it helps connect the city with sites that would work as lunch distribution points and provides the volunteers who operate the phones lines parents can call to learn about where their children can get free lunch, Chase said.
“Our role is one of kind of brokering and helping to facilitate getting families to sites. It is where we feel we can be the most useful,” said Suzan Bateson, executive director of the food bank.
According to food bank communications manager Michael Altfest, the idea to have the food bank partner with the libraries to provide lunch was started by a retired school administrator who volunteers at the food bank. Last year the staff at the food bank contacted the libraries in Oakland and Alameda County to discuss the possibly of the libraries providing a space where children could have lunch. The librarians were very receptive, Altfest said, and the program was launched in 2011.
“It made sense to sort of marry these programs, the libraries and the summer lunch programs,” Altfest said. “We started to see kids showing up at the library beforehand reading, and going to the lunch area, and then going back [to reading]. The libraries reported and uptake in library usage last year.”
Last year, they started out the year with three libraries and by the end of 2011 that number had increased to five. This year a total of 11 out of the 14 libraries in Oakland will participate in the program, Altfest said.
At the press conference held at the East Oakland Boxing Association Monday to launch the program, many of the families in attendance were regular visitors to the recreation center, which participates in the free lunch program. On this day volunteers from the USDA were passing out fresh fruit and packaged lunches that contained pita bread, fruit and salad. The children played a game to guess the amount of sugar in various foods and there were signs posted in the parking lot facing the street so that anyone walking by could read about the free lunch event.
Yolanda Martinez lives in the neighborhood and has four children who come to the center every summer. She said her children enjoy the program and they liked the food that was served that day. Others found out about the free lunch program because they were walked by and saw the sign or came to the center for another purpose. Gwen Lefort stopped by to fill out an application for the summer program for her grandson and stayed for the press conference.
“We started tasting and everything is good,” Lefort said. “I learned a lot about the sodas that we usually drink, but I see the number one [drink provided here] is water. I didn’t realize there was that much sugar in soda. We are going to eliminate the sodas for the summer vacation and add our own little fruits and vegetables” to the meals.
Toward the end of the event, the volunteers began cleaning up the area, and East Oakland Boxing Association executive director Sarah Chavez stood speaking with officials and a few parents. The East Oakland Boxing Association sponsors a monthly food distribution service to more than 200 families, in addition to participating in the summer lunch program, she said.
“We serve a very high risk population,” Chavez said. “About 90 percent of our kids are free or reduced lunch kids. [East Oakland is] an area that needs this. During our after-school program we actually provide our kids with a healthy snack. We have come to know that with a lot of our kids that’s it, that’s their dinner. They don’t eat. It’s important for us to be able to provide them with healthy food, and if we could provide them with a healthy lunch during the school year, that would also be great.”