Laguna High is serving up free food and community building to west county families

By Katherine Minkiewicz-Martine, Staff Writer, SoCoNews, November 17, 2021

Green credited the grocery pick up program with significantly improving the school’s graduation rates. (Photo Katherine Minkiewicz-Martine)

On a foggy Wednesday morning, a couple of Laguna High School teachers and students were out at the front of the school organizing cartons of eggs, packages of meat, loaves of bread, boxes of granola bars and a large box of potatoes, onions and colorful zucchini squash. They also had a slew of snacks and starches from rice, pasta, boxed macaroni and cheese, to tortilla chips and raisins. All of the items went toward preparing boxes of food for families.

In the early days of the COVID pandemic, Laguna High launched a free, weekly grocery pickup program through the Redwood Empire Food Bank for Laguna families. Since then, the program has grown to serve between 60 to 80 families. It’s also credited with helping improve school graduation rates.

“We know that kids can access their education better if they are not hungry,” said Laguna Principal Allie Greene.

Laguna High is part of the West Sonoma County Union High School District and is known for its work-based learning and credit recovery program.

Greene said the grocery pickup program started last year when the United States Department of Agriculture was funding more food giveaways for communities.

“Because we’re predominantly a low-income school, we qualified for it as a school and because there was not any other food pickup in the area, the food bank asked if we would be willing to allow the community to come,” Greene said.

Each food box contains pantry items, a protein, a starch, dairy and fruit and vegetables. She said a lot of the time they will get speciality items if a local business such as Clover makes a food donation. The food boxes can last families all the way through the week.

The program first started in Sebastopol at the old Laguna High site on Taft Street, however, now the grocery giveaway is held at the old El Molino High School, the new site for Laguna.

“Last year we didn’t have kids on campus so it was pretty easy. Once a week on Wednesdays they would deliver groceries to us in the morning and we would push it out into the community and invite anybody who wanted food,” Greene said.

The grocery giveaway is a critical service for the school community since about 60% of the school’s population is on free and reduced lunch and about 25% have unstable housing, according to Greene.

“We are a school community that has a high degree of need and so we wanted to reach out and see if we could serve our families and the community as a whole,” she said.

“When we say a family we usually say a family of four to five, so we’re feeding a huge chunk of people,” Greene explained.

When they first started the grocery pickup at Laguna’s new location on the old El Molino High School campus in Forestville, they were only serving about 25 families.

“We’re really excited, because being out here I feel like we can better serve the river area. It is closer than when we were in Sebastopol. A lot of the river communities can come get groceries from us through the school or just because they hear about us on the Redwood Empire Food Bank webpage. They can come here and we can make sure that they’re provided for,” Green said.

Greene said that she’s hoping the grocery program can help fix some of the stigma that some people might associated with Laguna.

“It has always been considered where the ‘bad’ kids go and we thought that if we could kind of shift that to where we’re a community that helps people, we help our families and we help anybody who needs help, then that would kind of change that perception,” Greene said. “Also, what we came to realize pretty quickly was that families who come to us for groceries talk to us and it becomes a community building experience.”

That community building spirit was going strong on Wednesday morning, Nov. 10, as folks slowly pulled up in their cars to get groceries around 8:30 a.m.

Teachers who were helping organize the food boxes and loading them into cars offered a cheerful “good morning,” and asked families if they wanted an extra box of chips. That morning, the school received an extra large palette full of boxes of chips and the volunteers were trying to make a dent in the supply and get as much food out as possible.

Greene said the grocery program has given teachers and staff an opening for communicating with families and learning more about students. For instance, if a child isn’t attending classes, they could ask the parent how they can help get that child re-engaged in school.

“All of these kids and families who really needed help all of a sudden saw us as an ally. It opened that door to get our families here and support and to get their child graduated from high school,” she said.

Anyone in the west county area is welcome to come get food and people can also come to pick up boxes for other families. Greene said oftentimes they’ll get one person who’s picking up for four or five different families and all they ask for the name of the family and the birth date.

“We are happy to serve the whole community and we will serve anybody who comes to us. We also want to make sure that our families get access to the food first, so we try to structure it,” Greene said.

Laguna High School families, who get priority for the food, can get grocery boxes from 8:30 to 10:15 a.m. — the two start times for Laguna students — at the front of the school at the student drop off loop. Food is given out every Wednesday.

 

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