The majority of public school students in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties qualify for free and reduced school meals. With schools shut down everywhere due to the coronavirus, local school districts are stepping up. They’re offering free meals at school sites for all students 18 and younger. Links to which school sites are serving meals and when are listed below.
Dr. Michelle Rodriguez is superintendent of schools for the Pajaro Valley Unified School District.
Last week, she helped hand out food to her students. Fifteen school sites are distributing breakfast, lunch and groceries. But of course, the lunch line setup is different.
Rodriguez says there’s a drive-through option or a walk-up option.
“We do have many family members who only have one car. Because of that, we don't want to restrict it to where they have to be in the car,” Rodriguez said.
Earlier this month, the California Department of Education received a special waiver from the US Department of Agriculture. That waiver allows school sites that had already been approved to operate the Summer Food Service Program or Seamless Summer Option to provide meals to students during coronavirus-related closures.
Rodriguez says 83 percent of the district’s students either qualify for free and reduced meals, are english learners or special education. Even so, the district is a provision school district.
“Which means that we don't ask. And so all of our students are able to, in the Watsonville area, all of our students are able to receive free and reduced,” Rodriguez said.
Staff with the district’s Food and Nutrition Services Department has been working long hours to ensure these meals continue to get to students. Last friday, they distributed about 12,000 meals.
“I think they're grateful, not necessarily grateful specifically for the food, although I think for that as well, but also just for the fact that people are so dedicated and willing to put in that time,” she said.
PVUSD has partnered with Second Harvest Food Bank Santa Cruz County to make it all possible.
Congressman Jimmy Panetta stopped by Second Harvest last week. With volunteers down due to COVID-19, Panetta worked to activate National Guard members to help food banks pack and deliver food.
“We met with the National Guard there at Second Harvest Food Bank and talked about their plan and what they're going to do, if necessary, for coming in there, helping out and then getting out the food to the people that need it the most,” Panetta said.
On Friday night, California governor Gavin Newsom announced their deployment.
The Food Bank for Monterey County is also working with local schools. Last friday, it partnered with the Monterey Peninsula Unified School District for “grocery bag grab and gos” at two of their schools, one in Marina and one in Seaside.
“So many of our kids rely on these meals as the main nutrition that they receive. and so it's important that we keep it going and that we do it well for all our families,” said MPUSD Superintendent PK Diffenbaugh.
The district will hand out breakfast and lunch Monday through Friday, between 10am and noon, once Spring Break ends. Diffenbaugh says about 70 percent of their students qualify for free or reduced.
“We will continue to serve meals to all students, whether they qualify for free and reduced lunch or not. And our plan is to roll this out at every site so that students are very familiar where to go,” he said.
Diffenbaugh says these tough times heighten the importance of the community that schools create.
“I think it's really imperative for us to be the kind of center of community for resources, because families trust schools and they trust school personnel,” said Diffenbaugh.
The California Department of Education has updated their mobile app, called “CA Meals for Kids” to help students and families find meals during this crisis.
For a map of school sites serving free meals in Santa Cruz County, click here.
People can support their local food banks during this time through monetary donations. Second Harvest Food Bank Santa Cruz County is also looking for healthy volunteers between the ages of 13 and 60 to help out.
UPDATE 3/23 11:30am: National Guard volunteers began working with Second Harvest Food Bank Santa Cruz County Monday morning. They’re working in the warehouse, sorting and packing food, and picking up orders for community partners. Second Harvest wants the community to know that these volunteers are here only to assist in getting food to the local community.