Tuesday, October 19, 2021     Volume: 22, Issue: 33

Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on September 22nd, 2021, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 22, Issue 30 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 22, Issue 30

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

By Malea Martin

From Laguna Middle School SLO students to farmworkers in Santa Maria Valley, hunger impacts all walks of life on the Central Coast. U.S. Rep. Salud Carbajal visited these constituents and others during a Hunger Tour of California’s 24th Congressional District on Sept. 16.

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.

At Laguna Middle School, Carbajal gathered around an outdoor picnic table with a dozen students. The congressman and the students enjoyed a nutritious lunch prepared by the school’s food services staff.

“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.

“The restrictions on qualifying, due to the American Rescue Plan, were relaxed,” Carbajal said. “All kids can actually partake in meals at their schools right now. It’s great because it’s until the end of the school year, and starting next school year, the state’s additional funding is going to kick in, so it’s going to continue the universal no-cost meal program in all the schools in the state of California.”

San Luis Coastal Unified School District Director of Food Services Erin Primer said this helps to 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 not just that it’s free,” Primer said. “It’s free and it’s good. That is the secret formula. … Even today at lunch, you don’t know who would have been on the [free lunch] program previously or not.”

Carbajal said the passing of ARPA kickstarted 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 discussions that we’re having right now,” he said, as the annual congressional budget gets hammered out.

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. 

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.” 

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