Hungry kids adapting to pandemic reality

Hunger during the pandemic is hitting families with children especially hard.

Food banks report long lines for assistance, as job losses wipe out household savings and increase debt.  

"We have been talking about the pandemic a lot," said Emilio Parra, nine, who is in a Novato after-school program for children of essential workers.

Emilio and his classmates are aware that mealtime is less predictable for some.

"We can't go to as [many] grocery stores so that's how I know a lot of kids aren't getting that much food," said Emilio.

Already a crisis, child poverty has worsened with an estimated 20% of California children going to bed hungry, according to Bay Area food banks. 

"It goes unspoken that a lot of kids just don't have enough to eat," said Ben Buggs, founder of Faith Food Fridays, Vallejo's oldest community food pantry.

"To compound it, you have the children who are out of school, who are not getting the free lunches and the free breakfasts they used to get," said Buggs.

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School districts have tried to fill the gap during distance learning.

Most offer to-go meals at campuses across the Bay Area, but it's hit and miss compared to the consistent meals provided when schools were open forclasses.

"A child can't communicate, they can't work, they can't go to the store, and they're not self-sufficient," said Diana Maravilla of the San Lorenzo Unified School District.

Maravilla supervises drive-through food distributions held at school campuses, aimed at enrolled students and their families, but open to all in need.

Most of the giveaways are stocked with enough food for 200 recipients, but run out of supplies before serving everyone in line.

"It's always very difficult to turn people away, especially when we know that this pandemic has impacted a lot of our community members so it's always difficult to close the gates," said Maravilla.

Community non-profits are also on the front lines of hunger.

"We see kids very tired and they have additional stressors at home, their families are struggling," said Cheryl Paddack, CEO of North Marin Community Services in Novato.

NMCS serves more than 6,000 people annually with housing, health, childcare and food support.

"A lot of the kids want seconds and unfortunately we can't provide that," said Angelina Susmani, Child Development Program Coordinator at NMCS.  

"They're saying 'we love this food, we want more', and they want to take it home or have more portions," said Susmani.

RELATED: Hunger cuts deeper into Bay Area than ever before

Older students admit learning isn't easy on an empty stomach.     

"Either the lunch is not really your favorite or you didn't pack food," said Grace Skinner, 11. "And sometimes you don't really feel like eating something even when you're hungry."

Students are well-aware the pandemic has forced some changes.

"Sometimes we don't have enough money," said Hannah Albuja, 13. "So instead of going shopping, we stay home and my mom makes foods with leftovers and they turn out really good."

Almost a year into the pandemic, children and parents show resilience, creating meals from a food box instead of a grocery list.

"When my mom makes me something I eat it," declared Emilio with a smile.

Read more about the food crisis in the Bay Area in the Hunger Hits Home section.