School lunch services have been unavailable to Santa Cruz students for nine months. Despite the lack of traditional school lunch, the city and county have adapted their food service to accommodate COVID-19 guidelines. Anyone under 18 can now get free lunch at county distribution centers.

“We reinvented our program and our services over the weekend,” said the director of food and nutrition services for the City of Santa Cruz, Amy Hendrick-Farr, of their response to the stay-at-home order.

Hendrick-Farr oversees food services for the Santa Cruz City School District, which includes three public high school campuses, two middle schools, three elementary schools, and certain alternative and charter schools. She said that while all school sites are open, operating under a small cohorts system, none are serving food.

Instead, lunches are being prepared by city employees, packed into school buses, and driven to one of four community locations or one of five school locations, where city employees distribute the lunches to community members. To limit the spread of COVID these distributions only happen twice a week on Tuesdays and Fridays from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.   

School locations

  • Bayview Elementary – 1231 Bay St.
  • Gault Elementary – 1320 Seabright Ave.
  • De Laveaga Elementary – 1145 Morrissey Blvd.
  • Harbor High School – 300 La Fonda Ave.
  • Soquel High – 401 Old San Jose Rd.

Community locations

  • Neary Lagoon Apartments – 81 Chestnut St.
  • Salz Tannery Apartments – 1010 River St.
  • Beach Flats Community Park -133 Leibrandt Ave.
  • Sycamore Commons – 125 Sycamore St.

Hendrick-Farr explained the stringent requirements established pre-pandemic for school food service workers have meant few cooking operation changes. However, only distributing meals twice a week means food service staff packages meals for multiple days into a single parcel.

“We were providing just under 5000 lunches to our student population, on an average [pre-COVID] day,” Hendrick-Farr said. “But on average, right now, we’re only serving about 360 members of our student population.”

This reduction is due to many factors, Hendrick-Farr explained, like working parents being unable to make it to a distribution, the fear of distributions spreading COVID-19, and stigma around using free lunch services. In certain exceptional cases, meals are delivered to families in need on a referral basis, but the resources to do that on a broader scale don’t exist. 

“I think what I would love is if everyone felt comfortable coming forward when they need help,” said Principal Kat McElwee of Mission Hill Middle School.  “I would really love if everybody could see us as a resource and want to come to us when they need support.”

Santa Cruz City Schools are not alone in their concerns about food insecurity during the pandemic. Santa Cruz County has the second highest poverty rate in California at 23 percent, behind Los Angeles County. 

Suzanne Willis, chief development officer of Second Harvest Food Bank explained that prior to COVID, their operation served 20 percent of the county population. They have seen an uptick in demand for their goods since March of last year. 

Second Harvest Food Bank hotlines

  • Santa Cruz County: 831-662-0991
  • Monterey County: 831-758-1523
  • San Benito County 831-637-0340

“All of a sudden, 40 percent of the population needed food assistance,” said Willis. “And that number has not really gone down since March.”

Both Willis and Hendrick-Farr said that people struggling with food insecurity should feel no shame in utilizing resources like free school lunches and food banks, which exist to serve the community. 

“It’s not that you’re taking services away, you’re actually helping all of our programs stay open and stay funded,” Hendrick-Farr said. “We’re here to help and to be of service. There is nothing that warms our heart more than to have our kids come and to see those smiling faces and to have that contact because we missed them terribly.” 

This loss of connection from remote distribution has been felt at all levels. 

Patti Moran, Head of the Bay Ridge Elementary distribution center, was moved to Bay Ridge from her original position at Santa Cruz high school due to inadequacies in the kitchen equipment there. 

“I miss talking to the kids,” said Moran. “You have your regulars and it’s really funny because you get to know the kids. Most people don’t realize I have grandkids their age, and so to me it’s nice because it’s like watching your grandchild grow up.” 

Moran has been working at Bay Ridge since the beginning of the pandemic. One of the five school meal distribution centers in Santa Cruz, Bay Ridge’s food services have moved away from prepared food — nearly all food is prepackaged with the exception of fruit and vegetables. 

Bagged lunches at Bay View Elementary provide a couple days worth of food to community members. Photo by Nico Santiago.

Getting food out to people remains a top priority, despite many not knowing about these resources.

“I don’t think the word has really gotten out, just saying, ‘We’re here to help you guys. Come and get lunch,’” Moran said. “Our motto for all time is no kid goes hungry. So we don’t want kids to leave and not have something at home.”

Schools working to help serve their communities has been a point of emphasis for school officials like Principal Kat McElwee of Mission Hill Middle School, which sits about a mile away from Bay Ridge Elementary.

Helping those families and students facing food insecurity has been paramount for McElwee. 

“You have to fill your first level needs before your second level level needs can even be considered,” McElwee said. “So before I can think about my ability to do math or my ability to write a good argument in my English class, I need to have my needs of nutrition, sleep, shelter be met. And I’m not sure that everybody gets that that’s not in education.”