A volunteer at CPSC Free Youth Lunch Program food distribution. (Courtesy of the Chicano Park Steering Committee Archives)

From affordable housing and health care to workplace accessibility, many U.S. institutions have been disrupted by the pandemic, but perhaps none more so than the 97,000 public schools across the country. Amidst navigating the shift to remote learning, seclusion from peers, and the lack of access to classroom supplies and campus services, some of the nation’s poorest and most at-risk children faced yet another obstacle: food scarcity. With many children reliant on school lunch programs, school closures severed many students’ ties to their only reliable meals source during the school week. The lack of adequate response and poor planning by school districts left communities with little choice but to provide for hungry students independently.

The working-class community of Barrio Logan, a historically Mexican American and immigrant neighborhood located southeast of downtown San Diego and home to the world-renowned Chicano Park, was no exception to this predicament. Decades before the pandemic, Barrio Logan had fought uphill battles against junkyards, shipyards, and industrial repair shops that moved into the community, creating air pollution, noise pollution, and other conditions that San Diego’s affluent residential areas would never tolerate. 

In more recent years, the community has also endured the ever-advancing threat of gentrification and skyrocketing rent and property costs. As a result of COVID-19 and subsequent school closures, many struggling families and their children were forced to adapt to a new set of challenges. A substantial number of residents are considered essential workers or are working jobs in businesses shuttered by lockdowns.

Making meals accessible to all students

For some of the most vulnerable students and families, school meals can be an essential source of nutrition. As schools closed in the wake of the pandemic, a number of campuses across San Diego County’s 42 K-12 school districts expanded free food distributions, many transforming their parking lots into food service pickup sites. Despite their considerable efforts, more was needed to ensure that underserved students remained fed. 

Before the pandemic, students still only had access to meals on school days, and while many but not all schools set up meal distributions, families—often with no reliable method of transportation—still had to travel long distances to distribution sites to receive meals.

Additionally, access to those public school lunch programs is often a bureaucratic maze of qualifications and applications  disproportionately weighted against communities of color. The requirements to qualify for those programs have been particularly exclusionary toward immigrant communities. Many families are fearful of applying because detailed forms require family income, Social Security numbers, and children’s immigration status.

Lucas Cruz, chairman of the Chicano Park Steering Committee (CPSC) and its community development subcommittee, which seeks to serve and outreach to the community through programming, had been looking to provide more for the people they served. Cruz quickly realized the limitations and shortcomings of the local free lunch programs amid the pandemic, especially for schools in Barrio Logan and the neighboring communities. 

Volunteers with the CPSC Free Youth Lunch Program. (Courtesy of the Chicano Park Steering Committee Archives)

Applying his experience with structuring a meal program for houseless people, Cruz and a handful of volunteers from the CPSC and area neighborhoods set up the CPSC Youth Lunch Distribution—a free weekend lunch program ensuring that students and youth in Barrio Logan would still have access to meals, even over the weekend while public schools were closed. No applications or qualifications were required for families to participate, and no questions were asked about immigration status or other personal information.

“I know what it’s like to rely on school lunches during the week.” Cruz explained. “Schools had just begun handing out lunches for pick up Monday through Friday. But I thought, what about the weekend? [CPSC Youth Lunch Distribution] was created as an option for families to save money on a meal, but more importantly it serves as a way to passively engage the community.” 

Before long Cruz organized a team made of dozens of volunteers, activists, local businesses, and community organizers who donated time, labor, and resources helping to prepare, store, and disperse meals to the community at Chicano Park on the weekends. Since its inception in March 2020, the CPSC Youth Lunch Distribution has allocated more than 200 free meals to the community every weekend on a biweekly basis.

Mutual aid is important because it allows us to serve each other in a real way … It promotes people power, inspires others to get involved, builds rapport with the community, and allows us to share the history/importance of self-determination so there is more trust between us and our neighbors.

Lucas Cruz

Mutual aid free from federal constraints

The CPSC Youth Lunch Distribution doesn’t rely on any state or federal funding. Everything the program receives from the food, utensils, packaging, and even PPE comes in the form of private donations from community members, occasionally a few local businesses, and sometimes even out of pocket by the organizers themselves. 

“The main challenge we’ve faced with the lunch distribution is donations. We do not seek out corporations to give us handouts, and everything is funded through donations,” Cruz explained. “Sometimes we would even have to pay out of pocket, but it’s important in order to maintain autonomy and integrity.” 

As a result, the program has the freedom to encourage and host political discussions about social issues affecting the community. Additionally, the program isn’t bound by any external policies or requirements for funding that can dictate who they’re able to serve. For Cruz, the service of mutual aid goes hand-in-hand with engaging the community on socio-political issues facing Barrio Logan residents and those in surrounding neighborhoods.

“Mutual aid is important because it allows us to serve each other in a real way,” Cruz said. “It promotes people power, inspires others to get involved, builds rapport with the community, and allows us to share the history [and] importance of self-determination so there is more trust between us and our neighbors.” 

Community-created mutual aid programs (especially those serving children and families) are nothing new. It’s something that marginalized communities in the U.S. have been doing to care for themselves and their neighbors for decades. One of the most famous examples comes from the Black Panthers, particularly the Panther’s Free Breakfast for School Children Program, which served children and families in Black neighborhoods. These programs served a dual role of community outreach and relationship building while also facilitating history and political philosophies through mutual aid.

CPSC Free Youth Lunch Program participants and volunteers. (Courtesy of the Chicano Park Steering Committee Archives)

Continuing in the same revolutionary spirit of groups like the Black Panthers and the Brown Berets, Cruz and his colleagues took much of their inspiration and modeling for the CPSC Youth Lunch Distribution from the “Plan Espiritual de Aztlán,” a pro-Indigenous manifesto drafted during the Chicano Movement of the ’60s and ’70s advocating for Chicano cultural nationalism and self-determination for Mexican Americans. The team also took inspiration from community elders and Chicano Park founders Tomasa Camarillo and Herminia Enrique, who had organized food distributions on behalf of the CPSC in Chicano Park back in the 1970s. Cruz said that programs like CPSC Youth Lunch Distribution help promote unity through mutual aid and allow communities to create their own social welfare institutions rather than relying on assistance from biased and racist systems.

However, unlike their predecessors in the ’60s and ’70s, Cruz and his colleagues have the advantage of digital communication to help build community awareness about the lunch distribution. Most of the program’s outreach was done through the CPSC’s Instagram and Facebook pages, and social media posts by individual volunteers. 

“Outreach like this allows for people to see that it’s possible for anybody to step up and serve their community,” Cruz said. “Building in a grassroots way allows us to get to know our neighbors and communities which leads to more trust. And trust is essential to keep building, and in our case protecting our reclaimed piece of Aztlán.” 

A future of community strength and self-reliance

In March 2021, Cruz approached Juan and Brenda Caro about taking over the program. The three had long worked together closely and the Caros have since taken over the weekly responsibilities of operating the CPSC Youth Lunch Distribution. The program has also expanded, serving not only Barrio Logan’s students and youth, but also families in general who are in need of a meal. 

“When we first started it originally was just for the students in the community, but as time went on we started to get more donations, which allowed us to expand more,” Juan explained. 

When in-person instruction resumed and schools in California reopened last fall, the Caros intended to keep the lunch program going, with the intention of opening a permanent resource center in Barrio Logan somewhere in the future. Despite the most recent Omicron variant’s spread, volunteers remain undeterred and continue to take every precaution necessary, from masking up to wearing gloves and continuing social distancing practices when distributing meals. 

Despite the current complications and the possibility of more variants to come, the Caros have a long view of the program’s meaning to the people they serve and acknowledge that the importance of their efforts goes beyond providing meals for those who need them. Whether COVID-19 becomes endemic or ends won’t change the fact that there are people in their communities who need extra help, the Caros said. They pointed to a long history of being overlooked by officials and politicians and how that’s contributed to their communities’ lack of trust that the government will ever truly help them. It’s taught them that what they need and can depend on is each other, and programs like theirs are what help to build strength within their communities and themselves so they can lift themselves up in a way that is true to their heritage and history. 

“Strong communities make everything else obsolete,” said Juan. “We don’t need any outside people coming to build up our communities. We can be self-reliant and we’re trying to show that by leading by example.” 

The CPSC Youth Lunch Distribution would not be possible without the work of all the volunteers whose support helped the program grow. The CPSC would like to thank: Giovanni “Mex,” Rocio, Kevin, Xochitl Flores, Erica “Mayahuel” Martinez, Patricia Cruz, John Vasquez, Juan Caro, Brenda Caro, Christy, Angel, Alejandro Meraz, Dave, Adam, Veronica Gohlke, Via International who helped supply us with food boxes, and countless others who have come to help.

Roberto Camacho is a Chicano freelance multimedia journalist from San Diego, California. His reporting typically focuses on criminal justice reform, immigration, Chicano/Latino issues, hip-hop culture,...