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Free lunch in RP and Cotati aims to combat summer hunger

By: Katherine Minkiewicz
June 15, 2018

This summer around 1.7 million children in California will experience summer hunger according to the California Association of Food Banks; however, one local Sonoma County food bank is hoping to reduce that number with their summer lunch in the park program in Cotati and Rohnert Park at La Plaza and Alicia Park.

The Redwood Empire Food Bank based program aims to serve around 39,000 meals this summer for children under 18 from low-income families who usually rely on school lunches during the academic year but struggle during the summertime.

According to statistics from the California Association of Food Banks, 17 out of 20 low-income students will fall into the “summer nutrition gap” and according to the Sonoma County Hunger Index, on average at risk families missed three meals a week in 2017 and it is estimated that 26 million missed meals that year — a staggering statistic.

That is why the Redwood Empire Food Bank is partnering with the Santa Rosa Unified School District to prepare fresh lunches daily for their annual lunch in the park program this summer.

“It started in 2004 when the former executive director worked with similar organizations like the Salvation Army and identified that there was a need for this in Sonoma County,” said Itzul Gutierrez, children’s programs manager for REFB.

According to Gutierrez the food bank started the program off with simply providing resources and information on where people could find food programs, however, it eventually blossomed to working with the Santa Rosa Unified School District to give out freshly made meals.

And the program, which started June 4, doesn’t just serve a basic meal. Each meal is different and nutritious, hot and healthy.

For instance, meals can range from lasagna to pizza or a grilled cheese sandwich with carrots and applesauce or a bacon and turkey club sandwich with a bean salad.

“They have a protein, starch and greens and on Friday we have cold meals (such as cold cuts), but it changes throughout the week and Wednesdays we have pizza, the kids love that,” says Nina Rodriguez, programs coordinator. 

Rodriguez estimates that last year the food bank served around 36,000 lunches throughout the summer. 

“Around 20,000 low-income families are eligible for free or reduced fee meals and around 31,000 qualify for lunches throughout the year,” she said.

When asked if hunger is an issue that people may not be aware of in Sonoma County, Rodriguez exclaimed, “Definitely. It is a bigger issue than we think. I think there are a lot of people who also don’t know of the resources available to them and that we have healthy food.”

In addition to the healthy food the lunch in the park will also start having fresh produce available for families. 

“We’re excited to be here in Cotati and RP,” Gutierrez said of the program.

Lunches will be served in other Sonoma County locations in addition to Rohnert Park and Cotati and will usually be served between 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m., Monday through Friday. For exact dates, times and locations, visit www.refb.org/summerlunch2018 or call (707) 523-7900.