“I know your question,” my son usually says as we walk home from school. As any mom will do, I ask anyway. Ever since my son started kindergarten at Roosevelt Elementary School, I’ve been happily curious about the food choices in the school cafeteria. Pozole is his favorite. He also likes the orange chicken, veggie burritos, and of course, the smoothies. Even at age six, he’ll try the salad bar.
Most of the students my son eats with each day receive those wonderfully nutritious lunches without paying the full price of $2.75. Based on their family income, nearly half of all students in the Santa Barbara Unified School District receive school food at a free or reduced rate. All students in the Santa Barbara Unified School District are lucky to be served well-balanced meals with ingredients from scratch, such as real chicken, local fruit and produce. Every day there is a vegetarian option, and accommodations are made for students who have dietary restrictions. The cost of the food is reimbursed to the district by the federal government, thanks to a national program that began in the 1970s. And fortunately, now we’ve wised up and eliminated the stigmatization that was an unintended consequence: Every student punches in their own account number to receive their lunch, regardless of how much — if anything — is being paid.
Some might be surprised to know that one in five kids in Santa Barbara County are faced with hunger. Our schools provide their main source of well-balanced meals. So, what happens when summer rolls around and children can no longer can rely on the free and reduced meals they are used to? As a school-board member and mom, this is especially concerning to me. When that final school bell rings in June, sadly, nearly 80 percent who depend on free and reduced meals during the school year go without until school resumes. Summer should be a magical time, but for too many kids it’s a time when hunger spikes, harming their ability to thrive the way that growing kids should.
Absolutely, no child should go hungry this summer in Santa Barbara. There are 40 places around the county where any child 18 years old and under can get a free and delicious meal, no paperwork or registration required. These programs are run in parks, community centers, and schools. I am proud that Santa Barbara Unified School District’s food services provides the meals for 15 of those 40 sites — many serving breakfast and dinner in addition to lunch. Much of the produce used in our district kitchens is local and organic. While the food is free for kids, adults can eat for $4. I believe it is a testament to the strength of our community that our schools serve as such an important focal point for the well-being of our families — all year around.
Five years ago, I teamed up with actor and anti-hunger advocate Jeff Bridges, the national spokesperson for No Kid Hungry, to boost the participation in the summer meals program here in Santa Barbara County. Jeff had the brilliant idea to bring music to summer meals as a good way to shine a light on them, involve the community, and show these kids how much Santa Barbara cares about them. As Jeff says, what’s better than combining good food and music? So, for five summers we’ve worked with the Foodbank, Community Action Commission, the City of Santa Barbara, the Santa Barbara Unified School District, and the City of Santa Maria to support their work and host a concert series with youth bands. We’ve developed a texting program to make it easier for families to find out where these free meal programs are held (Text 877-877 and type ‘summerfood’). The numbers of kids enjoying these meals has indeed increased by over a third, but we still have a long way to go to meet our goal of making Santa Barbara a No Kid Hungry county. Yet, we know we can get there. We have all the ingredients we need: delicious food grown right here locally, strong schools, effective partners, and most of all — a caring community.
Laura Capps is a member of the Board of Trustees for Santa Barbara Unified School District and supports the work of No Kid Hungry.