There is such a thing as a free lunch.
On Monday, 22 children, ages 3 to 5, enjoyed one around three tables in a classroom at the Head Start location at 5681 Hollister Ave. in Goleta. Their teacher and three other staff members accompanied them as they ate a lunch of pork, corn on the cob, stuffing, a nectarine and a glass of milk. The kids smiled and chatted as they ate.
The food was provided by the Nutrition Services Program of the Santa Barbara Community Action Commission, which provides lunches for hungry children this summer for the seventh year in a row.
With “hunger doesn’t take a summer vacation” as their slogan, thirteen CAC locations in low-income areas provided hand-cooked lunches every day last summer for children ages 1 through 18. As a result, approximately 1,500 low-income youths received meals all summer long, Program Director Adrienne Starr said. The agency also provides food and services for low-income families and senior citizens year-round.
“Our program is helping to keep the community healthy physically and mentally,” Starr said.
The free lunch program is only one division of the 36-year-old agency. Starr said the Nutrition Services Program provides snacks and lunches for 1,200 children per day in the CAC’s Head Start Childcare Program, a day care and preschool program that is free for low-income families.
Assistant teacher Teresa Guerrero said the lunch program has benefited her whole family.
“Eighteen years ago, my son came [to the preschool] when he was 3 years old. I came in as a volunteer, then a cook, then after that an assistant teacher. My son is now 21 years old and he stayed in school.” Guerrero said. “I think if I was born again I’d come to work here. I love working here.”
The CAC also provides about 750 low-income senior citizens with homemade meals delivered to their homes or served at one of 10 dining centers in Santa Barbara. The food is prepared from scratch at the agency’s Central Kitchen located at the Santa Barbara County Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Services building at 315 Camino del Remedio in Goleta.
The CAC is a nonprofit organization that operates on roughly $18 million each year. The summer program and Head Start are mainly funded by the California Department of Education and the federal government. The senior program is funded by the Area Agency on Aging. The programs also receive small donations from various agencies and private foundations in Santa Barbara County.
Seven years ago, the CAC established the Back Door Deli, a delicatessen located in the Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Services building, whose profits also help fund the program.
“We’re not in it for the money, just to provide the meals,” Starr said.
Starr said the CAC also plans to open a large kitchen in Santa Maria in collaboration with the Good Samaritan Society. In addition to providing food for low-income and homeless people, this kitchen will employ low-income people, giving them the skills necessary to seek jobs in the food service industry.