Food insecurity is not a new issue in Humboldt County and many families face an increased strain during the summer months when their children no longer have access to school lunch programs, a situation that has only been compounded by the COVID-19 outbreak.
For more than two decades, Food for People has worked to bridge the summer gap by providing lunches to children from low-income households on weekdays when classes are not in session.
But facing a number of challenges in recent months, the nonprofit took the step of reaching out to the Humboldt County Office of Education and local school districts to make sure the lunch program would continue.
This year, several districts are beginning to offer their own programs to assist Food for People in making sure children across the region have access to healthy meals, with each varying in reach and operation.
"The ultimate goal in this, which kept me up at night, was how do we feed kids this summer?" Food for People Executive Director Anne Holcomb said.
In March, a sewage backup inundated Food for People's main building, causing more than $100,000 in structural damage and food loss just as the COVID-19 pandemic shut many out of work and created a surge in the need for its services.
Holcomb said Food for People was forced to look for creative ways to make the lunch program work in the face of unique challenges, including physical distancing restrictions that limit the number of volunteers who can come together to make lunches. There's also uncertainty about whether the USDA will continue to waive its rule that each child must be present to accept lunch and instead allow parents to do the pickup to reduce gatherings at distribution sites.
"This year required some new partners to make that happen," Holcomb said.
Eureka City Schools, which has been helping provide summer meals since 2017, will not only be covering its district but also bringing lunches to Fortuna and Rio Dell, and opening some new sites.
"Eureka City Schools as a district has always taken food insecurities seriously but this year requires a more united effort to maximize access to meals for children in our community," a release from the district states. "With the help of our amazing bus drivers and food service staff, administration, Food for People and our community partners, we will strive to reach the most children possible this summer."
Arcata School District is covering its city and the McKinleyville Union School District is operating a weekly food distribution site at McKinleyville Middle School.
Food for People will concentrate on reaching children in the county's outlying areas, such as Willow Creek, Hoopa and Southern Humboldt.
Linda Prescott, who coordinates nutrition services for the Humboldt County Office of Education, said her agency has a long-standing partnership with Food for People to serve the low-income families in the county. The need, she said, has only increased amid the COVID19 shutdown.
"There has always been a need to offer meals to children during the summer months to help bridge the gap for food insecure families when school is out, however, with economic downturn due to COVID-19, we anticipate an even greater need," Prescott said in an email to the Journal. "With shelter in place and school closures, schools have experienced record numbers of grab-and-go meals distributed to children in our communities. We expect this trend to continue with the serving of summer meals."
Both Holcomb and Prescott noted that families whose children qualify for free or reduced lunches at school can also receive a Pandemic-EBT, or P-EBT, card with up to $365 per child to help cover food costs. The deadline for applying is June 30 and online applications are available at https://ca.p-ebt.org/en.
Holcomb said that extra assistance has long been needed, pandemic or no pandemic.
"I hope it's extended into the future," she said.
Kimberly Wear is the assistant editor and a staff writer at the Journal. She prefers she/her. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 323, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @kimberly_wear.