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People of all ages benefit from free food programs on Central Coast

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At Laguna Middle School in SLO, U.S. Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Santa Barbara) gathered around an outdoor picnic table with a dozen students on Sept. 16, eating a meal prepared by the school's food services staff as part of a hunger tour of the 24th Congressional District.

FEEDING THE FUTURE U.S. Rep. Salud Carbajal sits with Laguna Middle School students as they enjoy a free lunch, thanks to American Rescue Plan Act funding. Principal John Calandro sits to Carbajal's left. - PHOTO BY MALEA MARTIN
  • Photo By Malea Martin
  • FEEDING THE FUTURE U.S. Rep. Salud Carbajal sits with Laguna Middle School students as they enjoy a free lunch, thanks to American Rescue Plan Act funding. Principal John Calandro sits to Carbajal's left.

"The federal funding resulted in [Laguna Middle School] being able to hire the staff, the chef, and the nutrition specialist that have helped put together this great program," Carbajal said.

Also thanks to pandemic-prompted federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), Laguna Middle School is now able to provide a free breakfast and lunch to all students, regardless of their income status. Carbajal said the passing of ARPA kick-started the universal meal program that states like California are now implementing longer term.

"My hope and goal is that we can do this for the entire nation, beyond the American Rescue Plan funding, like Gov. Newsom has done for the state of California," Carbajal said. "It's part of the [budget] discussions that we're having right now."

Carbajal added that universal school meals could also be funded through the farm bill, which determines federal agricultural policy for five years at a time. The last one was passed in 2018, so the 2023 bill discussions will begin next year, Carbajal said.

"It could include augmentation to the SNAP program, it could include augmentation to the year-round school meal program, all of those issues are up for discussion and reauthorization," Carbajal said.

San Luis Coastal Unified School District Director of Food Services Erin Primer said a universal meal program helps remove the stigma around getting school lunch, since children of all income levels are now eligible to receive free lunch. And the need has only grown: While before the pandemic 1 in 6 kids were food insecure in SLO County, now 1 in 4 are, Primer said.

"It's free and it's good. That is the secret formula," Primer said. "Even today at lunch, you don't know who would have been on the [free lunch] program previously or not."

And hunger doesn't just affect children: Overall, in 2020, "the SLO Food Bank distributed a record 5.1 million pounds of food to those in need, a 54 percent increase over our 2019 experience," according to the Food Bank's website.

Later that afternoon, Carbajal arrived at West Newlove Drive in Santa Maria to help the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County distribute food to farmworkers through a program called Agricultores con Buena Salud (Healthy Farmworkers).

Every week, typically on Fridays, the Foodbank and Community Health Centers (CHC) rotate to different farmworker housing locations to hand out food and sanitation supplies. The program started in mid-2020, and has only gained popularity since, Foodbank Director of Community Programs and Education Lacey Baldiviez said.

At the Sept. 16 distribution, there were hundreds of farmworkers and children lined up to receive the free food and supplies. Baldiviez said the turnout was a bit higher than usual, probably because Congressman Carbajal was present.

"A lot of the residents were waiting for him to come, so they were very excited to get to meet him," Baldiviez said after the event. "He spent some time handing out food and meeting people, and it was a great experience." Δ

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