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How San Diego Schools Fight Hunger During The Holidays

Students eat lunch at Edison Elementary school in City Heights, San Diego, De...

Photo by Joe Hong

Above: Students eat lunch at Edison Elementary school in City Heights, San Diego, Dec. 12, 2019.

It’s lunchtime at Edison Elementary School, and kindergartners are lining up outside the cafeteria. They have options: teriyaki chicken on rice, mozzarella breadsticks or organic chicken drumsticks.

Ninety-seven percent of Edison students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. And for students facing food insecurity, their school meals can be a lifeline when school’s in session. But as they break for the holidays, that safety net disappears, and schools and charities are working to make sure students stay well-fed during this time of year.

“The holidays present a couple unique challenges,” said Vince Hall, CEO of the charity Feeding San Diego. “When you have breaks from school, that really creates a heightened level of insecurity.”

According to Feeding San Diego, one out of six students in the county face chronic hunger.

“San Diego is a beautiful community, but in the shadows, people are having to make the choice between paying for food and paying for rent,” said Vince Hall, CEO of Feeding San Diego.

RELATED: Study: More Than 130,000 Kids Face Hunger In San Diego, Imperial Counties

Reported by Joe Hong , Video by Andi Dukleth

Fortunately, there are safety nets in place for students struggling with hunger throughout the county. Apart from serving breakfast and lunch, schools and charities partner to provide additional support for students and families.

Feeding San Diego provides food for a pantry at Edison Elementary School open to all. Dinora Escobar, a parent who helps run the pantry, said churches and other community hubs serve as alternatives during the holidays.

“It’s not just for parents and students at Edison, it’s for the whole community,” Escobar said. “There’s great need. It’s evident when you see the line outside.”

Every Friday at Edison, counselor Vanessa Mendez makes a callout to the 60 students participating in the Food 4 Kids Backpack Program. The students trickle into her office with their backpacks and Mendez fills them with cereal, fruit bars and canned soup.

“It’s important because a lot of times, they don’t have the access or the means to healthy nutritious food on the weekends,” she said.

RELATED: Fewer U.S. Households Are Going Hungry. But Cuts In Food Aid Loom

As the holidays approach, some of these students won’t have their backpacks filled for as long as a month. But there are hundreds of food distribution centers throughout the county to make up for the loss.

“Unfortunately the schools close for the long break for winter,” Mendez said. “So we connect (families) with what the district offers, and it’s great because the district connects us with agencies that offer meal support throughout the break.”

The Jacobs & Cushman San Diego Food Bank, which runs the Backpack Program countywide, is one of those agencies. For CEO Jim Floros, feeding students is at the core of the food bank’s mission.

“We believe education is the major vehicle to break the cycle of poverty,” Floros said. “Childhood education starts with childhood nutrition, so we partner with the schools especially with the backpack program which goes to the core of our mission, making sure kids can get a good education, get a good job and support their own families.”

But the cycle of poverty doesn’t take a holiday and neither does the food bank. And while the holidays are often a time for indulging in unhealthy foods, Floros says the food bank makes sure their 500 distribution centers are providing nutritious meals for students and their families during the holidays.

Students are served lunch at Edison Elementary school in City Heights, San Diego, Dec. 12, 2019.

“We’ve really evolved away from being a food bank and really consider ourselves a nutrition bank,” said Floros. “We’re making sure we’re providing the healthiest food possible.”

When Edison Elementary students return in January, Mendez is hoping they’re healthy and ready to learn. For Mendez, the difference between a hungry student and a well-fed student is clear.

“I notice they’re able to focus more,” she said. “They’re not thinking about their empty stomachs. They’re able to concentrate and pay attention and get the necessary information to further their academic success.”

While it’s been more than a decade since the Backpack Program started, food insecurity among students persists. Floros says eliminating hunger for good will take more than feeding hungry students during the holidays.

“You really need to get to the root causes of poverty and why are people hungry in the first place,” Floros said. “That’s how you cure hunger, not just creating a better band-aid.”

Listen to this story by Joe Hong.

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Joe Hong
Education Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksAs an education reporter, I'm always looking for stories about learning. My favorite education stories put a student's face on bigger policy issues. I regularly sift through enrollment data, test scores and school budgets, but telling student-centered stories is my top priority.

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