Jeff Bridges isn’t squeamish about the bizarre. In fact, he embraces it, though in a decidedly low-key, under-the-top way. The famously cool — yet down-to-earth — Hollywood actor, garage bandleader, and longtime Montecito resident managed to outdo himself in the world of weird this February. That’s when he starred in a Super Bowl TV ad for an ambient sound-sleep album called Sleeping Tapes. In it, he hovers over the bed of a sleeping couple, making a high-pitched tone by running a stick slowly around the rim of a mediation bowl. Bridges is no stranger to TV ad campaigns, having functioned as the voice of Hyundai for several years, but his Super Bowl Ad has become a cult classic. Months later, Bridges is still chuckling. “Wow! ‘Tapes!’ Such an archaic word,” he mused. The drone-heavy sonic-wallpaper tape Bridges was peddling is a far cry from the reverb-infused twang favored by his band The Abiders. Not everyone liked it. Some even complained it exacerbated their insomnia. But sleep was never really the point.
As Bridges explained in a recent interview, the idea was first “to show there’s no idea too bizarre that you can’t build a website for it.” But the real point, Bridges stressed, was to find a way to raise both money and awareness about childhood hunger. Bridges, it turns out, has been involved in various anti-hunger efforts for the past 35 years, and his sleep tape, it appears, helped move the needle on both fronts. According to Billboard Magazine, the tape ranked second in New Age sales for several months running though, in fact, it’s free to download. Those opting to donate to No Kid Hungry, the national organization for which Bridges has served as chief spokesperson and pitch-meister the past five years, receive a couple of bonus tracks for their generosity. And in agreeing to appear in the ad, Bridges insisted half the donations for No Kid Hungry be funneled to Santa Barbara County to combat what’s known in the lingo as “food insecurity.”
And when contemplating the bizarre, what could be weirder than hunger in so famously a wealthy community as Santa Barbara? But Bridges understands that Santa Barbara is home to the very poor as well as the very rich. And he also understands Santa Barbara is home to a Milky Way of nonprofit organizations just itching to do some good. With so many nonprofits, he reckoned, there had to be a solution to the problem. At least locally.
This summer, Bridges has lent his obvious star power to helping solve a pressing problem on the South Coast. A majority of Santa Barbara children who receive free or reduced-priced meals during the school year are not accessing food programs available to them in the summertime.
On paper, the numbers are sobering. Countywide, 30,000 students obtain free or reduced-priced meals through their schools. (That number would be 30 percent higher, according to California Food Policy Advocates, if everyone who qualified actually signed up.) In summer months, however, those numbers plummet to 4,100 — that means 85 percent of families must find enough food for their children elsewhere. That’s worse than the statewide gap of 82 percent. Bridges is shooting to bump up the summertime number of kids who get fed to 12,000. That would reduce the gap to 60 percent. “My goal is to make Santa Barbara County the first No Kid Hungry county in the state,” Bridges said.
To that end, he’s teamed up with Laura Burton Capps — daughter of Congressmember Lois Capps — a freelance consultant and organizer affiliated with No Kid Hungry’s parent organization, Share Our Strength. Not only are they bringing their star power to illuminate the issue, but they are also working with a variety of organizations that have long addressed the problems of hunger in the community: Chief among them are the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County, the Community Action Commission, and the Santa Barbara Unified School District.
Three years ago, Bridges and Capps began collaborating with City of Santa Barbara neighborhood coordinator Mark Alvarado to launch a summer musical concert that would introduce the South Coast’s meals program. This May, they did it again, at Bohnett Park by the Westside Boys & Girls Club, where the gravitational impact of Bridges’s celebrity was very much in evidence. There were lots of kids having a great time, but it was also a definite political see-and-be-seen event. Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider and County Supervisor Salud Carbajal — now locked together in a down-and-dirty contest for the congressional seat presently occupied by Lois Capps — took to the stage, cheerleader style, exhorting the crowd of young kids happily and obliviously munching their hot dogs. Capps herself was there — recently off an ACL surgery — moving about gingerly with a crutch.
The number of white people in attendance was by far the most Bohnett Park had experienced in the past 30 years. A series of up-and-coming groups — all teenaged girls — took to the stage, courtesy of Girls Rock Santa Barbara. Notes for Notes, which runs a musical program for teens at the Westside Boys & Girls Club, introduced the crowd to more stage-savvy bands, including Rico & Nico. But it was a 9-year-old named Sophia Guerra who upstaged everyone, belting out songs with an astonishingly big voice reminiscent of Janis Joplin minus the sandpaper. Bridges’s speech was short and sweet: There would be 40 meal distribution sites throughout the county this summer, up from 33 the previous year. “There are no papers to sign, no forms to fill out,” he said. “If you’re hungry and under 18 years of age, you just show up and get a meal.” He then introduced P!nk, the alt-pop celebrity, who’d recently moved to Santa Barbara and is now also involved with No Kid Hungry.
Bridges always takes pains to stress he’s only helping out; the real heavy lifting, he’s quick and careful to note, is done by the Foodbank, the Santa Barbara school district, and the Community Action Commission. No Kid Hungry merely shines a light on their efforts. It also helps better coordinate who’s doing what, where, and when. Representatives from groups who have long histories of serving the hungry now sit down on a regular basis to plot logistics. This in itself is an improvement. At one point, for example, the Foodbank proposed opening a meal distribution site at the Ladera Apartments on the Lower Westside. But it turned out that the school district was already serving meals at McKinley Elementary School, just a quarter mile away. It’s a little thing. But little things matter.
On a good day, getting nonprofits to cooperate is akin to herding cats. Especially among those with similar objectives, competitive tensions must be carefully navigated. The days of the hair-netted cafeteria ladies ladling out peach halves from syrup cans may be long gone, but differing food agendas among the nonprofit groups definitely exist: fresh and locally grown, for example, versus pre-prepared and warmed up. And all the participating organizations operate under serious financial pressures that mandate they fly their flags loud and proud. In the context of economic survival, subverting individual organizational identity to a new group endeavor doesn’t come easily. Much of this gets hashed out at the group meetings. At times, the hashing gets uncomfortable. But it gets done. “This has forced us to work together,” said Fran Forman of the Community Action Commission. “That’s been positive. We now coordinate more, and we speak with a more unified voice.”
Very coincidentally, Bridges got his first introduction to anti-hunger activism around the same time he got his first serious taste of Santa Barbara. In the late ’70s, he attended a world hunger symposium and came away convinced that the problem was political in origin, not technological. “Politicians are supposed to represent our individual will, so I had to ponder what I was going to do about it individually,” he recalled. One option was “to walk away and do nothing.” Another was “to pay $10 to scratch my guilt itch.” Ultimately, Bridges used his star power to start an organization called End Hunger Network, which, among other things, produced a 1996 film on hunger and poverty called Hidden in America.
He had spent significant time in Santa Barbara while shooting perhaps the grimiest film ever set in this little paradise, Cutter’s Way. In it, Bridges played a B-minus gigolo who tries to blackmail the Fiesta Parade’s El Presidente after discovering he’d murdered a young woman and left her body in a downtown dumpster. But Bridges was staying at El Encanto in its earlier incarnation of affordable shabby-chic and formed a good impression of the town. Then several years later, when the Northridge Earthquake happened, the Bridges family decided to leave Los Angeles and move to Santa Barbara. Since arriving, Bridges has consistently — but quietly — volunteered to work with a number of organizations helping those down on their luck.
The problem of hunger in Santa Barbara, of course, is much broader than just hungry kids. Poverty, Bridges noted, is a “very complicated subject.” People are more “comfortable,” he said, talking about feeding kids. Or, as Erik Talkin of the Foodbank put it, “People tend to freak out when you start talking about ‘systemic poverty.’ Food is a good way to start talking about those other issues.” Demand for Foodbank services rose 36 percent during the recession and has not gone back down. Of the 110,000 people who indirectly rely on the Foodbank — one out of every four county residents — 65 percent live in households with at least one member working, he said. “A very large number of people who work cannot support themselves on what they earn, no matter how hard they work.”
What difference No Kid Hungry’s efforts have made is hard to quantify. This summer, for the first time, the organization is spending money to advertise the fact that there are 40 sites where free food is being provided to kids younger than 18. In addition, No Kid Hungry is using a texting service that will notify anyone who texts where the three food sites closest to them are located, the hours, and days of operation. (See “Text-A-Free-Meal” below.) Each of the 40 sites offers free food, but not all sites offer the same program. The school district, for instance, runs nine sites — six of which are operating out of mobile café food trucks. For those younger than 18, the school district meals are free; for those over 18, it’s $4 a plate, making it easily the best deal in town. Most of the food is locally grown and organic. All this requires the services of 53 employees operating out of three industrial kitchens. The federal government only pays the school district $3.23 for each meal. That’s only enough, said district food chief Nancy Weiss, to cover the cost of meals but not the labor required to prepare them.
The Foodbank’s summer program has definitely shifted away from the caricature of peanut butter, beans, and government cheese. At its 12 sites you’re likely to get wraps, sandwiches, salads, string cheese, and milk prepared in Los Angeles by an outfit called Revolution Foods and trucked north three times a week.
No Kid Hungry
Despite numerous claims to the contrary, there is, in fact, such a thing as a free lunch. There are also free breakfasts and a few free dinners. To address the issue of summer hunger in Santa Barbara County, No Kid Hungry is attempting to provide such free meals to as many “food insecure” minors as possible. No paperwork is necessary, and no forms need be filled out or intrusive questions answered. If you’re younger than 18 and hungry, just show up at one of 40 sites throughout the county. The sites have to qualify, not the guests. Sites are selected based on the percentage of minors receiving free or reduced meals during the school year. Seven different organizations that have long fed the hungry are collaborating with No Kid Hungry to make this happen. All provide a myriad of other programs at other sites, but all No Kid Hungry sites operate on a no-questions-asked basis for anyone under 18. Some sites will sell meals to those older than 18; others won’t. The Santa Barbara Unified School District — in conjunction with the Santa Barbara Parks and Recreation Department — maintains nine sites, the Foodbank 12, the Community Action Commission eight, the Carpinteria Unified School District two, the Eastside Boys & Girls Club one, the Lompoc Unified School District seven, and the Guadalupe Union School District one. NoKidHungry.org
Sodas aren’t on anybody’s menu. The Foodbank offers the Rethink Your Drink program, which supplies a cautionary crash course in the perils of a high-sugar diet. Each site is served by squads of volunteers intent on preaching the gospel of “food literacy” interspersed with lots of activities. Food literacy is all about teaching people how to shop and prepare their meals in a healthy and economic way. By itself, Talkin said, it won’t redress the economic inequalities that make services like the Foodbank so urgently needed. “But it starts with the food,” he said. “It’s a good way of leveraging change.” Adults older than 18 are not served as part of the Foodbank’s summer program.
Within all three organizations, there’s a wide range of opinions as to how big the unmet need really is, but everyone agrees that the problem is much worse in North County. Unfortunately, as yet, the Santa Maria-Bonita School District has not jumped in to fill the breach.
No Kid Hungry is now entering into the second week of this summer’s program. It’s too soon for any meaningful comparison with previous years. Kinks are still being worked out. The first few days at the Ortega Park truck site, there were only 15 takers. Parents felt reluctant to let their kids — and the vast majority of those getting fed are younger than 12 — mingle too closely with inebriated males congregating by the barbecue pits. Cops were called, warnings given, and the truck site moved to another spot by the park. Most places, however, there’s been a healthy response. Hundreds of free meals are served each day.
Bridges is now shooting a film in New Mexico called Comancheria, in which he plays a Texas Ranger. “Like a lot of us, I have a little badass and a little good-ass,” he said. “A lot of ass.” As far as the summer meals program, Bridges is confident that Santa Barbara can do much better. States like Maryland and Arkansas, he said, now offer summer meals to 65 percent of the kids who receive free and reduced meals throughout the school year. “We’ll get there,” he said.
With seven nonprofit organizations involved and 40 free-meal food sites located throughout the entire county, Laura Burton Capps wanted to make it as easy as possible for families looking for free food under the Summer Food program. “You don’t want people having to call seven different organizations to figure out where to go,” said Capps. “If you have to get your driver’s license renewed, you know where to go. If you have to go the hospital, the same thing. That’s what we’re trying to do here.”
To that end, Capps and No Kid Hungry have launched a texting service to make finding a food site as simple as possible. Text “SUMMERFOOD” to 877-877. You should then get a prompt asking for your address. Text in where you are at that moment. It will then provide the location of the three nearest sites.