Grogan Park was busy with twirling hula-hoops, bouncing kids racing in burlap sacks and, mostly, healthy eating on Thursday afternoon when the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County kicked off its Picnic in the Park summer program with a free, nutritious lunch for local youth.
Over the past five years, the food bank has stepped in after the school year has ended to serve up a hearty lunch throughout the summer. This year, the number of kids stopping by for food and activities is expected to increase, with the food bank's director of community impact, Bonnie Campbell, looking forward to serving nearly 38,000 lunches this summer to 2,000 kids.
"We want to make sure that these kids have something to eat every day this summer," said Campbell, noting that the program served 33,000 lunches last summer.
The volunteer-run program will host local youth at 16 sites around the county this summer, dishing up lunch Monday through Friday afternoons. The foodbank has chosen parks, housing facilities and neighborhood centers within two miles of school sites where at least half of students receive free or reduced-price lunch. This roster of locations includes three new sites in Lompoc and two new sites at Santa-Maria Bonita School District summer program locations.
"The kids who receive food assistance through the school district throughout the year don't have to miss a meal just because it's summertime," said Campbell. They also don't have to miss a lesson. Campbell and the food bank also provide programming to teach participants about healthy lifestyles.
Diners can take part in activities at Picnic in the Park as well, from races and games to nutrition literacy programming, with Campbell sure to provide prizes to keep kids coming back. The program is open to all county children under 18 years old, regardless of household income.
"The prizes make me want to come back to eat my lunch," said a local student who is heading into fourth grade this fall. She and a number of other attendees at Thursday's kickoff were not new to the program. Picnic in the Park is part of a decades-old national effort led by the United States Department of Agriculture's Summer Food Service Program, which works to make nutritious meals accessible to low-income children when the school year ends.
"The food bank is aware of the meal gap for these kids and is stepping in to fill that," said Campbell. Through nutritious meals and educational games, the food bank also hopes to help students steer clear of overly processed, sugary snacks when they're hungry this summer.
Picnic in the Park locations include the Santa Maria Public Library at 420 S. Broadway, Veterans Memorial Park at 545 Pine St. and Fairlawn Elementary School at 120 Mary Drive.