Posted: 06/24/2013 05:11:34 PM PDT
WATSONVILLE -- When the Watsonville City Council passed a new, slimmer budget earlier this month, Parks and Community Services' summer drop-in programs at Marinovich and Callaghan parks landed on the chopping block.
"I was shocked and alarmed" about the decision to cut the programs, said Chris Johnson-Lyons, head of the Community Action Board of Santa Cruz County Inc., a Watsonville-based nonprofit. "If the issue is not having adequate staffing, the Community Action Board can offer some help," she recalled telling the council.
The board did just that. Within two weeks, Johnson-Lyons had secured the resources to keep lunch on the menu at Callaghan Park.
Unlike the free and reduced-price lunch programs offered during the school year, kids don't have to prove income-eligibility to benefit from the summer lunch program.
"Hundreds of low-income youth depend on this program in the summer," Johnson-Lyons said. "Nutritious food may be more expensive than non-nutritious food, and this is a way to help ensure that children are getting a healthy lunch. It's a small but important victory. ... We have to look for those and we have to remember those."
In addition to keeping the lunch program, the board is now training and paying two high school students and one college student to supervise activities and serve the free meals, which are available to kids and teens ages 18 or younger from Tuesday through Friday. The program starts Tuesday.
Anthony Saavedra, 16, is one of the students who will be working at Callaghan Park.
"I thought that would be a really good thing to do, helping kids who don't get enough to eat," Saavedra said.
A senior at Pajaro Valley High School, Saavedra said he has experience taking care of kids as a camp counselor and a baby sitter for his brothers.
More solutions offered
While Johnson-Lyons was volunteering one solution, Margarita Cortez, executive director of Loaves and Fishes Inc., a nonprofit kitchen and food pantry in Watsonville, was texting City Manager Carlos Palacios to propose another.
Loaves and Fishes serves a free, made-from-scratch lunch at noon every weekday to adults and children.
The lunch program at Marinovich Park also would have been canceled, but the city Public Works and Utilities Department, which wasn't as deeply affected by the budget cuts, volunteered to provide staffing. Marinovich Park will host a hands-on, environmental science workshop, where kids will have supervision working on activities designed to teach the basic principles of science.
La Manzana Community Resources provides food for the Callaghan and Marinovich programs, as well as six more in Watsonville and five in Santa Cruz. But the Parks and Community Services Department was responsible for staffing the sites under their purview. With the budget cuts, the department couldn't afford to staff all four of its locations for the program.
Brad Blachly, assistant director of the Parks and Community Services Department, said the 3 percent budget cut translated to about $108,000 for his department.
Blachly said the drop-in program serves 35 to 60 meals a day, depending on the location. His department tried to be pragmatic when choosing which programs to cut.
"We know Loaves and Fishes is right next door to Marinovich Park," Blachly said of the organization less than a block from Marinovich. "There are other options close by for children to get a meal."
Continuing to feed those in need
Thanks to the Public Works and Utilities Department keeping the Marinovich program alive, Loaves and Fishes still won't be seeing an extra spike in demand this summer. But the modest community kitchen, located in a renovated Victorian-style home at 150 Second St., is already busy. In the winter, when fewer people have work in agriculture, the kitchen serves 100 to 150 meals a day, said Cortez, Loaves and Fishes' director.
"In 2009, we only saw 30 to 50 people in the summer," Cortez said. But Tuesday's lunch drew more than 90 diners.
"We plan accordingly to meet that need," she said. "We just try to increase our fundraising, because we know that if we don't meet that need, our families will go without."
Last year, Loaves and Fishes served more than 25,000 meals to about 500 individuals, Cortez said.
Matilde Barrera, 34, is one of the regulars. She said Loaves and Fishes provides a sense of community, with many of the same people coming for lunch every day and the same volunteers serving.
Barrera was at the head of the lunch line at noon last week with her 2-year-old son and husband for a hearty meal of beans, rice, quesadillas, salad, milk and abundant strawberries.
"Where I'm from, in Michoacan (Mexico), there's none of this," Barrera said in Spanish. "They don't help people. That's why I came here."
At a glance
Free summer lunches and activities for kids 18 or younger