Inside the Fruitridge Community Collaborative, organizers prepared to give kids something that statistics suggest was badly needed.
Around midday last Monday, about two dozen children lined up for a tray of low-fat milk, baby carrots and string cheese; a pre-packaged sandwich and an apple.
But if past trends are any indicator, the kids accounted for only a fraction of the school-age children who lived nearby.
Child advocates and local officials say the yawning gap between those in need and the low turnout typically found at summer lunch programs is an urgent problem, especially during the month of July.
Some 142,099 students qualified for free and discounted meals last year in Sacramento County. But only about 14 percent of them received summer lunches, slightly below the state average, according to a Sacramento Bee analysis of California Department of Education data.
The problem is one communities struggle with nationwide.
Last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture spent close to $500 million on summer lunch programs nationwide. Still, a state-by-state ranking published in June by the Food Research & Action Center showed that only four states - Vermont, New York, New Mexico, Maine - and Washington, D.C., fed more than a quarter of eligible needy kids last year. California fell one spot in the ranking from the year before and landed in 14th place, according to the report.
Local school districts and nonprofits know the trends all too well.
Going into the homestretch of summer break, local officials are still trying to boost attendance with a series of “spike events” around the city before students return to the classroom. A number of local groups are also trying to figure out how to attract more students.
“We’ve had to figure out how do we reach out to those families and how do we reach out to those kids,” said state Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, who has been hosting events offering free meals and health services twice a week this month.
“These are low-income families so I don’t know how many of them are actually traveling,” Pan said. “I think what happens is the kids are at home while the parents are out working so the parents are trying to figure out where can my kids go that’s going to be safe.”
Advocates say the biggest barrier is not enough sites participating because of cuts to summer programs that attract children. Although the USDA reimburses agencies for the meals, they usually have to spend from their limited budgets upfront.
“In order to have a successful meal site there has to be something else happening,” said Clarissa Hayes, a food policy analyst based in Berkeley who co-authored the national report. “There can be a stigma when going to a meal site so if a community can bill it as a resource for everybody and make it a welcoming environment then it really does well.”
It is unlikely organizers could have found a better place than the former Fruitridge Elementary school building to connect with needy kids. Since the district closed the school four years ago for low attendance, a number of social services organizations now use it. The building serves as one of the more than 150 places offering free meals this summer in Sacramento County.
Francine Murchison, 64, who lives nearby, came at the suggestion of a neighbor who works in the building. She normally looks after her two grandkids, ages 2 and 4, and they often go to Wellspring Women’s Center for breakfast or maybe Jack Davis Park to play.
“We go there just to get out the house,” Murchison said. “I try to keep them busy so they go to sleep.” When Murchison prepares lunch, it is usually something simple and quick — a tuna sandwich, noodles or a run to Church’s Chicken, she said. Murchison left the event Monday with a bag of fruit and vegetables that she planned to cook.
Even though organizers arranged for soccer play and health screenings, there did not appear to be many participants. Other program sponsors say it’s puzzling why so few attend considering the need.
“We do not see a lot of community children that come from home,” said Kim Thomas, who oversees nutrition services for the Twin Rivers Unified School District’s 28 free meal sites. “To be honest, it’s a mystery to us. We provide the program and we advertise and we just don’t see the participation.”
The United Way California Capital Region, which sponsored 28 sites this year, including the one at Fruitridge, surveyed some 200 residents on the topic while strategizing how it will deliver meals this summer.
“Something we’ve found in our work is one of the reasons people aren’t participating is because they don’t know they exist,” said Sayla Elsbree-Kraft, the organization’s healthy meals manager.
The research project also showed that about 50 percent of the people are coming to the sites for the meals and the others are coming for the activities, Elsbree-Kraft said. Overall, she said the schools and organizations in the region distributed 580,000 meals during the entire summer last year.
“We’re one of the few regions that have actually seen growth in participation,” Elsbree-Kraft said.
In Sacramento County, more than 178,000 meals were served during July 2017, the month often used as a measure for summer lunch program participation. That was about 7 percent more than the year before but about 18 percent less than in 2014 when participation hit a six-year high, state education department data shows. An education department official said many factors could influence the decrease, particularly the economy and California’s cost of living.
“Since (the) USDA uses a national average to determine what level of family income will be eligible for free or reduced price meals, it becomes more difficult for California families to be eligible,” said Cynthia Butler, a spokeswoman for the department. “During the economic downturn, California’s cost of living was still higher than the national average, but we relatively got closer and therefore more families would qualify.”
Local organizers are undeterred. Pan, who is a pediatrician by training, set out to serve 1 million meals this summer in partnership with other organizations. He said participation tends to lag in July so they’ve scheduled twice-weekly visits to different sites where there will also be free vision and dental screenings.
“I think as we’ve gotten more community partners on board and partnered with more people we think it’s a goal that we can reach this summer,” Pan said. “We also have other services we’re bringing on board as well to attract the kids. It’s not just about the meals, (although) obviously that was the main organizing event.”