By Caroline Osborn
The Redwood Empire Food Bank's summer lunch program begins serving low-income Sonoma County children on June 7. The program is designed to benefit the estimated 26,000 children who receive free or discounted school lunches throughout the academic year but face hunger during summer vacation. In its most expansive summer initiative yet, the Redwood Empire Food Bank (REFB) will provide free lunches at 41 locations, an increase from last year's count of 35. Meals are completely free for any child age 18 or younger.
The summer lunch program does not require registration or proof of a specific income bracket but seeks to serve as many children as possible. This year, the program is "needed more than ever," according to Gail Atkins, REFB's director of programs. Compounded with recession-induced limitations on summer school capacity, Atkins predicts that more children than usual will attend the summer lunch program.
Since school districts provide the meals, the lunches will be similar to the food children consume during the school year. The REFB community program coordinator Jill Barron is confident in the nutritional value of the meals. "I know there's been controversy. I've visited all the kitchens," she assures. "We have a great working relationship with the school districts. They cook all of their food from scratch in their kitchens."
But the summer lunch program cannot run on REFB's admittedly mighty power alone. This community-based project needs volunteers; Barron estimates some 100 to 150. Volunteers should expect to help at least once a week for some 10 weeks. Duties could include delivering, serving and accounting for meals, but also leading and monitoring recreational activities such as arts and crafts, reading, board games or an outdoor activity. Atkins says she is "really excited, not only to be able to offer lunch, but also a fun program of garden-based nutrition activities."
Each child will receive a gardening kit complete with a pot, soil, seeds and basic utensils. Locations lucky enough to have a garden onsite will provide children with an opportunity to learn about cultivating plants firsthand. Garden-based nutrition activities, Atkins says, will introduce children to the "benefits of eating healthy and fresh food." The REFB's summer lunch program will feed children meals, but it also plans to feed them healthy eating and living habits.
Elsewhere in the North Bay, the Napa Valley Food Bank will not offer a comparable program this summer, but program director Shirley King calls it "something we want to work on." Marin Community Food Bank will instead increase distribution to its seven pantry partners located throughout the county.
Contact the Redwood Empire Food Bank at 707.523.7900. www.refb.org.
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