The summer food program for schoolchildren in Santa Barbara County saw a steep drop in participation after ICE sweeps began. | Credit: Paul Wellman

A fear of immigration sweeps has cut in half the number of children coming to this summer’s free lunch program at parks and housing areas. Two weeks into the program, rumors of the presence of ICE agents lowered the number of lunches served at Santa Barbara’s Jardin de las Rosas housing complex from 30 to six. Countywide, the program has seen a 55 percent drop-off, Foodbank’s Judith Smith-Meyer reported in an email. The supplementary food program — run by the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County and the Santa Barbara Unified School District for several years — has 52 locations county-wide. It is free to all children under 18, and no forms are filled out or identification required of participants or their parents.

Yesterday, said Julia Lara of Foodbank, the decreases continued and some parks had no children in them at all, highly unusual for summertime. She saw this mostly in North County locations — Santa Maria, Lompoc, Guadalupe, and Los Alamos — compared to South County — Goleta, Santa Barbara, and Carpinteria. Program volunteers have spoken to Lara of families’ concerns about ICE, saying that’s why “some families were not showing up. … A lot of the current immigration, political climate, has had a lot to do [with the decreasing numbers], especially in the last week and a half,” Lara said. “We know that [food] is a big need, and going to a concentrated area where there’s being food delivered is not going to feel safe.”

In the first two weeks of the program, attendance had been the usual until President Trump threatened ICE sweeps. Attendance plummeted at Santa Maria’s Veterans Memorial Park, which typically served 166 lunches per day but only served 62 on June 26, said Smith-Meyer. That same day, at Grogan Park, the 150-lunch average dropped to 78; Rice Park, which had peaked at 97 lunches, decreased to 39. Smith-Meyer said the presence of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents was “reported or rumored” close to the locations seeing the greatest drop in numbers. “This is also affecting attendance at other food distributions,” she said.

At the Boys and Girls clubs in the county, however, no drop-off has been seen. The club CEO Michael Baker said his program participation remains high. The clubs, which run their own meal program, have seen a consistent 650 children per day countywide showing up for summer lunches. “It’s a nonissue for us,” Baker said, adding that when the club has free lunches, children should come and take advantage of it, regardless of their citizenship status. “I don’t think food under any circumstances should be a political issue,” Baker said. “It just seems silly to me. If someone’s hungry, they’re hungry. Period.”

Foodbank is currently in discussion on alternative ways to get meals to the children, said Lara, who is director of programs for the nonprofit. No definitive solutions have been implemented yet, pending what the attendance numbers from the next few weeks show. “This is not only affecting or concerning [individuals]. This affects all of us,” she said. “There’s a bigger call to action that we can all take part of … strong collaboration as a community can really help our immigration population.”

The Foodbank’s Picnic in the Park program runs through August 9 in North County, and to August 16 in South County. All locations can be found by texting SUMMERFOOD to 877-877 or visiting


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