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Feeding kids on the coast: Educational institutions on the Central Coast work to keep their kids of all ages fed 

Waylon Watson, 2, and his mom, Brianne Watson, sit in the shade on the steps in front of the San Luis Obispo County Library. He slowly nibbles on an apple that came from a white paper bag. Children gasp in disbelief at a magician in the library's community center that is to the right of the facility's entrance. As Waylon walked out of the show on July 25, volunteers offered him the white bag, which included an apple, a bag of carrots, a sandwich, Raisels ("sourlicious golden raisins"), and a box of milk.

He timidly nodded between bites, acknowledging that his apple was good. The bag it came in is part of a free summer meal program that the library participates in. Volunteers help hand out lunch to any child who wants one regardless of their economic status. The free meals are put on by local school districts to give kids who participate in the free or reduced meal program the opportunity to have a meal during the summer months when school isn't in session.

click to enlarge SUMMER MEALS Although 2-year-old Waylon Watkins is not enrolled in any financial assistance programs, his mother Brianne Watkins is grateful for the option of a meal or snack when attending the San Luis Obispo County Library. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • SUMMER MEALS Although 2-year-old Waylon Watkins is not enrolled in any financial assistance programs, his mother Brianne Watkins is grateful for the option of a meal or snack when attending the San Luis Obispo County Library.

According to the California Food Policy Advocates—a nonprofit organization that focuses on food policy and increasing low-income Californians' access to healthy food—in 2013-14, of the 38,967 people in San Luis Obispo County who were considered low income, 37 percent were food insecure.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food insecurity as the lack of access to an adequate amount of food for active, healthy living. In 2016, out of 16.5 percent of U.S. households that reported to be food insecure, 8.5 percent of those households included adults with children—which means due to a lack of resources, these households had difficulty providing enough food for all their members at some point during the year.

Food insecurity is also experienced by single young adults or students at the university and community college levels. According to a 2015 report from the Urban Institute, "Assessing Food Insecurity on Campus," about 11.2 percent of students at four-year colleges and 13.5 percent of students in vocational education reported that they were food insecure.

In 2016, a study conducted by the University of California and its Global Food Initiative found that food insecurity can negatively impact a student's ability to focus, which in turn can affect academic performance. In addition to reduced food intake, it can also negatively impact diet quality, leading to inadequate intake of fruits, vegetables, and dairy, as well as an insufficient intake of vitamins and minerals, which may lead to negative health outcomes and increase in the risk of chronic disease over time.

There are many programs that Cal Poly and Cuesta College are utilizing to make sure their students are eating properly to successfully earn their degree. San Luis Coastal and Lucia Mar school districts are banding together to ensure their students are not only eating nutritionally but eating favorable foods. In doing so, the districts are also collaborating to feed children throughout San Luis Obispo County during the summer.

New resources

Summer session is in full swing at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo, but the Campus Center isn't as busy as it would be during the school year. A few students linger during breaks between classes. The Cougar Pantry is the most recent addition to this area, which includes the Student Life and Leadership Office, the bookstore, the Associated Student Center, and the cafeteria.

Enrollment in classes and a student I.D. card are all it takes to gain access to the pantry, which operates like a campus food bank. The pantry shelves contain ingredients, dry goods, produce, and microwaveable meals for students to take at their leisure.

click to enlarge ADDRESSING A NEED Although the Cougar Pantry was only open for six weeks, it was enough time for about 600 students, including return visits, to utilize the on-campus resource. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • ADDRESSING A NEED Although the Cougar Pantry was only open for six weeks, it was enough time for about 600 students, including return visits, to utilize the on-campus resource.

Before the pantry existed, Cuesta College provided (and continues to provide) its students with food resources through its partnership with the Food Bank Coalition of San Luis Obispo. Through the local food bank, the college gets a monthly distribution of food on its San Luis Obispo and North County campuses. At the sites, participants receive one bag of pantry food and one bag of fresh produce. Student households (depending on the number of people per household) must meet income guidelines created by the USDA to qualify for the distribution.

Mark Sanchez, the assistant superintendent and vice president of student services, said that through the partnership, Cuesta's distribution sites served more than 3,000 participants per year—that includes students and community members.

Sanchez said the number of participants made the college realize it needed more nutritional food resources for its students. The Cougar Pantry officially opened its doors April 10, about a year after submitting paperwork for a state initiative that provided funding to establish food pantries on college campuses.

"To name just a few items that we have available for students, we've got soup, almond milk, cereal, and tuna helper," Sanchez said.

Although it's closed for the summer, it will be open during fall and spring semesters as the college assesses how many students utilize the pantry and whether there are enough funds to keep it open beyond the two semesters. The pantry was established with the thought that students, free of charge, can get as much as they need for at least two to three days of meals.

In June 2017, Gov. Jerry Brown approved a state budget that provided $7.5 million as part of a "Hunger-Free College Campus" initiative. The investment provided the UC, CSU, and California Community College systems each with a one-time $2.5 million award to develop student meal credit sharing programs, create campus food pantries, and designate employees to assist students with the otherwise outdated CalFresh enrollment process.

Cuesta's application was accepted, and the college was awarded $17,000 to establish a pantry of its own.

"It took some time for us to identify a location, get shelving, and work with our faculty to determine which types of food we should have available for the students," he said. "We had our nutritional faculty have their input on which types of food we should put on our shelves."

In just six weeks, the pantry had 600 visits.

"What we were able to ascertain in the six weeks we were open is that it's going to take a lot of resources to sustain this pantry because as word spreads that this is a resource available on campus, more and more students will utilize it," he said.

Sanchez said the college worked hard to make the pantry a welcoming and safe resource for students.

"It takes a lot for a student to say, 'I'm going to go access these resources,'" he said. "When you put something together and you know it's meeting a need and you see the students actually utilizing the resource, it's humbling."

There are several avenues that Cuesta College is looking into so that it can keep the doors of the pantry open for those who need it. The state-funded Student Equity Program—a program that provides resources to students who are considered disproportionately impacted (students who significantly underperform the highest performing group of students)—committed $10,000 in the 2018-19 academic year to support the pantry.

Sanchez said that the college's faculty and staff created an account through the Cuesta College Foundation funded by personal donations. In the short time that the pantry has been open, the account has brought in $1,000 to contribute to the pantry's sustainability.

"I think oftentimes we drive up and down Highway 1 and we see the beautiful coastline and the beautiful homes. But there's this whole segment of our population that is going without basic needs, and it's concerning. So for us here at Cuesta, it's a start to bring the community together through food distribution, through partnerships with the food bank, and our partnerships with local farmers," he said. "We want to continue to expand our service."


Cuesta College toured the Cal Poly Food Bank to get some ideas about what a potential food pantry could look like. Cal Poly spokesperson Matt Lazier said students can receive fresh produce—lettuce, kale, carrots, and apples—or dry and canned goods.

"The food pantry relies on the generosity of donors to provide funding for the purchase of food. As an agency partner of the Food Bank Coalition, the pantry can purchase food at a reduced cost," Lazier told New Times.

Cal Poly's food pantry started in 2014 and is accessible throughout the school year (including summer quarters), Monday through Friday.

In 2015, the university established Cal Poly Cares, a program that supports students with unexpected financial emergencies that could impact their academic success. Cal Poly Foundation board members pledged $1 million over five years for Cal Poly Cares. The money is given to students in the form of grants that are typically used for unexpected emergency expenses, such as car repairs, medical bills, academic supplies, or tuition.

Lazier said if a student is food insecure or hungry, the administration will typically give them meal vouchers and encourage them to utilize the food pantry.

"However, many students who are food insecure have other financial responsibilities that are impacting their ability to afford food, and Cal Poly Cares can help with those expenses," he said.

Lazier said any student can have access to the food pantry as long as they are experiencing food insecurity due to financial constraints. Any student is also eligible to apply for Cal Poly Cares and/or meal vouchers. A significant majority of the students who utilize Cal Poly Cares are from low-income backgrounds. More than 70 percent of students using the program are from families with expected contributions of less than $8,000.

Students can help their peers access food on campus with the Mustang Meal Share Program. The program allows any student with a meal plan to donate up to 10 meals per academic year to another student that is experiencing food insecurity.

"The students who donate their meals are providing a direct benefit to other students in their community. The students receiving the meals could be their friends, roommates, or classmates," Lazier said.

In the last three years, more than 2,500 students have utilized the program. Lazier said the school provided at least 3,700 meal vouchers to more than 400 students.

Associate professor of nutrition at Cal Poly Aydin Nazmi said for some incoming freshmen it will be their first time experiencing food insecurity.

"In college it's a different level of time commitment and dedication versus high school where there are definite academic consequences. There are academic consequences but also behavioral and social," Nazmi said.

In his view, while food insecurity has always been around, the discussion about programs and aiding students has recently gained momentum. But society has always viewed the starving college student as anecdotal—it builds character.

"It's not charming; it has really nasty effects. When I was a graduate student, I studied in London, which was very expensive to live in. I was very poor, so I would go to meetings only because it was announced that food would be offered," he said. "That's called food insecurity."

He said a college student has one job—to graduate college, but a student can't be successful without food.

Moving food forward

Food insecurity affects students at all levels, but in K-12 schools, parents can enroll their students in free or reduced breakfast and lunch programs. According to the California Department of Education, during the 2016-17 academic school year, San Luis Coastal Unified School District had 7,718 students enrolled and 2,581 of those students utilized the free or reduced price meal program. During the same year, the Lucia Mar Unified School District had 10,649 enrolled students with 5,059 students utilizing the meal program.

click to enlarge NOT SO STANDARD Participants of the summer meal program can count on not only a snack in their white paper sack but an apple, carrots, a sandwich, and milk. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • NOT SO STANDARD Participants of the summer meal program can count on not only a snack in their white paper sack but an apple, carrots, a sandwich, and milk.

"Food is the great equalizer. Every single day we all have to sit down and have at least two meals," Lucia Mar Unified Food Service Director Laurel Goins said. "It's the best way to start a conversation, and the most memories are associated with when you sit down with people and break bread ... or pizza, whatever you're into."

She's sitting in the break room of Lucia Mar's food services office with her counterpart from San Luis Coastal Unified School District, Food Service Director Erin Primer. For this collaborative duo, it's all about nutritious food and how to best serve it to their students.

During the school year, Lucia Mar and San Luis Coastal offer their students the standard two meals—breakfast and lunch—whether it's a free or reduced meal or paid for by a child's guardian. Lucia Mar also offers a supper meal served between 3 and 3:30 p.m. Goins said that the program is for students who participate in after-school enrichment programs such as homework assistance, extra curricular activities, and science camps.

"If we have some students that have been with us since 8 in the morning, they are going to be hungry around 3 [p.m.], as all children are," she said.

San Luis Coastal is now offering breakfast before the bell, so students who haven't had a meal before school starts can have the right amount of fuel to start the day.

"I think Erin and I are of the same opinion, that I've gone to a meeting where I have not had any food, and after about an hour, you completely lose me," Goins said. "So if I can't pay attention and I'm 40, there is no way that a 7-year-old is going to hear me over their rumbling tummy."

Aside from ensuring that their students are properly fed, both food service directors excitedly said they're proud of their new focus on providing nutritious food that kids care about.

"What we really try to focus on with all the materials that we serve is how do we serve the most delicious foods. How do we serve foods that are nutritionally adequate and wholesome, but also that kids will like?" Primer said.

It's not an easy task. In order to get their students excited about the food that's on their lunch trays, food services tells the story about where the produce comes from. For San Luis Coastal, Primer said it's about highlighting the local farm community that surrounds the schools within the district.

"Whether it's through a farm field trip, school garden, or information provided in the cafeteria, having that connection of where things come from really helps them understand that it didn't just magically show up, and they're more inclined to try it," Primer said.

During the past school year, she said, the district worked with Kandarian Organic Farms, which is about 2 miles from one of the district's school sites. Kandarian Organic Farms is known for their grains: organic brown flax, chia seed, nude oats, and triticale. The local grains took the place of a brown rice dish for lunch.

Goins said that the Lucia Mar district hasn't been able to source as many different local produce type products as San Luis Coastal, but they have been able to partner with local agencies such as One Cool Earth. One Cool Earth is a nonprofit that supports schools in creating or sustaining a school garden. There are many options for customizable programs including one-time teacher trainings, family cooking nights, zero waste system setups, and garden-build workshops. They also provide ongoing services such as regular maintenance for a school garden and education for students.

Students at Ocean View Elementary School have been working closely with One Cool Earth this past school year. Goins said what makes the program so special is whatever produce that the students are growing in the garden and learning about is reflected on the school cafeteria menu. This coming school year, Goins is working with her district to take it a step further and have One Cool Earth work with teachers and their classrooms to not only grow different produce but also use that produce in the school lunches.

"Having students come in and talk with their fellow students and say, 'Hey we grew this and it tastes great.' Because I can go around all day talking about how radishes are great with butter and salt. But as a grown-up I don't have the same dialogue level with them that their peers do," she said.

Goins and Primer said that when school is out and summer is in full swing, many families that depend on the school district's free or reduced-price lunches lack the resources to provide three meals a day. Together, the districts combat that by offering summer meal programs throughout San Luis Obispo County. The meals are offered at selected middle and elementary schools in both districts, the Boys & Girls Club Teen Center, and participating libraries within the San Luis Obispo County Library system.

Summer meals

According to the California Food Policy Advocates, in 2015, more than 1.7 million of the state's low-income students fell into the summer nutrition gap—students who miss out on meals provided by their schools because school isn't in session. In California, 85 percent of children who benefited from free or reduced meals missed out on similar lunches during the summer.

Lucia Mar and San Luis Coastal school districts teamed up with the San Luis Obispo County Libraries to offer free summer meals for kids under the age of 18.

The County of SLO Public Libraries became involved in the summer meals program through the California Library Association's Lunch at the Library Program five years ago. It's a program that provides training and resources for libraries all over the state to become summer meal sites. The program was also the start of free summer meals that don't require any background or income information from the participant.

Margaret Kensinger-Klopfer, the coordinating librarian and youth services director, said that in the last five years, the SLO County Library has given more than 4,500 meals.

"As soon as the County of SLO Libraries heard about this program, we thought, 'Yes!' We are already a safe place that children come to during the summer and we are a hub to our communities," Kensinger-Klopfer said. "We recognize this is a natural way to support children in our communities that might not have access to food during the summer."

click to enlarge GIVING OUT FREE MEALS San Luis Obispo High School juniors (right to left) Davan Murphy and Ruby Houghton offer free meals to kids that have participated in the summer programs offered at the San Luis Obispo County Library. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • GIVING OUT FREE MEALS San Luis Obispo High School juniors (right to left) Davan Murphy and Ruby Houghton offer free meals to kids that have participated in the summer programs offered at the San Luis Obispo County Library.

As 2-year-old Waylon finishes his apple under the shaded steps, he digs into his white paper bag in search of his next snack. Although Waylon and his family don't experience food insecurity and aren't low income, the lunch program doesn't discriminate.

Brianne, Waylon's mom, says she didn't know that the library partnered with San Luis Coastal and Lucia Mar to provide meals for kids that participated in summer programs at the library until this year.

The free summer meals booth is usually posted outside the library on the same day as the Summer Reading Program or other events such as the magic show. Once the magic show ends, the booth flooded with a line of children waiting for their own white paper sacks.

Brianne remembers coming to the summer reading program at the library when she was a child, but, at the time, there wasn't a meal program offered. She really appreciates what the library is doing to help feed children out there who might not be able to get a lunch at home.

"Especially summertime, because the schools do help out families in need with meals during the school year. Then there's two months of maybe not getting the help they need, so knowing that this is here is great," she says. Δ

Staff Writer Karen Garcia can be reached at


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