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Hungry Kids Often Can’t Find Free Meals When They’re Not In School. These Sacramento Groups Are Making It Easier.

U.S. Department of Agriculture / flickr

U.S. Department of Agriculture / flickr

Thousands of low-income Sacramento kids are entitled to free lunch year-round, but they often don’t know where to get those meals over when school is out.

Only 12 percent of those eligible receive meals during the summer break in Sacramento, according to Democratic state Sen. Richard Pan’s office.

An analysis of state Department of Education data by The Sacramento Bee found that number is closer to 14 percent.

Various nonprofit organizations across the region use grant funding to serve food in neighborhoods where a majority of children qualify for free meals through the National School Lunch Program. But advocates say most families aren’t accessing that food.

This spring, a coalition of nonprofits, school districts and lawmakers are trying to ramp up the distribution to eligible children.

“We want families to know that summer meals are free, that they’re available all summer long, that the school districts are really committed to high-quality meals featuring fresh California grown produce,” said Leyla Marandi, a program manager with the nonprofit Center for Ecoliteracy.

In 2015, Sacramento left $3 million federal dollars on the table “because we could not figure out how to get meals to hungry kids,” Pan wrote in a statement. The senator helped create the Million Meal Summer Initiative last year.

This spring, the Center for Ecoliteracy is launching a public-awareness campaign on billboards and other areas in targeted neighborhoods to tell families when and where free meals for kids are available.

And the Elk Grove Unified School District is purchasing a van to bring food to parks, pools and libraries in neighborhoods where at least half of kids qualify for free lunch. This vehicle will be added to a fleet of three vans that already make routes to South Sacramento neighborhoods.

Michelle Drake is the district’s director of food and nutrition services. She says this is about more than meals.

“When children are off for an extended period of time, there is some amount of learning loss, especially for a child who is not giving the nutrition they need,” she said.

Elk Grove will have the option to partner with the Sacramento Air Quality Management District, which is designing an electric delivery van for this purpose.

Jaime Lemus, division manager for transportation and climate change, says they’re also creating an electric food truck for the Natomas Unified School District. Both vehicles will be subsidized by local clean energy programs.

“Now you have a vehicle, electric platform, serving a real need in communities,” he said. “And these are not usually the communities that showcase this type of technology”

Additionally, the coalition is working to reduce financial risk for participating groups, who get reimbursed for meals served and often lose money when they overestimate the number of meals needed, according to Pan’s office.

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