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Weekly distribution of the latest round of family food boxes through the USDA Farmers to Families program started Monday in Gustine.

Two food programs are helping meet the needs of families and seniors in local communities.

The latest round of a USDA program which distributes commodities free of charge to community members started this week and continues at least through the end of the month.

Weekly distribution sites are located in Newman and Gustine.

In addition, the Newman-Crows Landing Unified School District is continuing to host a senior nutrition program under the auspices of a county agency. That program has seen a four-fold increase in participation since the school district took it over more than a year ago.

Family food boxes

The family food box program distributed several hundred boxes of produce each week in Newman and Gustine through most of the summer months.

The program, known as the Farmers to Families Food Box, is entering a new phase, explained Caralyn Mendoza, chief business official for the Newman-Crows Landing Unified School District.

The new, larger boxes will offer items such as dairy product, pre-cooked chicken, potatoes, eggs, and fresh fruit.

Previously, the USDA food boxes were stocked primarily with produce items.

A group led by Gustine resident Zachery Ramos is distributing the food boxes in Gustine.

He and Mendoza said the program has been well-received in their respective communities - and have helped meet a vital need during challenging times.

“I think it has made a great impact in our community. People have been very appreciative of it,” Ramos commented.

“We wanted to do it because it was the right thing to do,” Mendoza said of the USDA food box program. “We anticipated the need, but it seems like the need is growing every week.”

Weekly distribution of the new food boxes in the Newman-Crows Landing district will begin Friday, Oct. 9. Boxes can be picked up from 11 a.m. to noon at Hurd Barrington, Von Renner, Hunt and Bonita elementary schools, as well as Yolo Middle School. The boxes are being distributed in conjunction with free school meals offered to all children ages 1-18. Any community member can pick up a food box free of charge while supplies last, Mendoza said, regardless of their income or whether they have students in the school system.

In Gustine, food box distribution begins at 9 a.m. each Monday on the kindergarten entry side of Gustine Elementary School.

Senior nutrition program

In addition to the school-based programs serving free meals to children ages 1-18 in Newman and Gustine, a Newman-based program is providing meals to West Side seniors each weekday.

Due to the pandemic the senior nutrition site located at the McConnell Adult Education Center is offering carry-out meals only, Mendoza said.

The program was funded for 15 meals daily when the district took it over in July 2019, but due to increased participation is now funded for 55 meals.

In September, Mendoza said, participation averaged 62 meals a day.

Some are being picked up by seniors, while others are being delivered by volunteers.

“We have a couple of community volunteers who have been delivering to people who don’t feel safe going out,” Mendoza commented. “When the pandemic started word-of-mouth got out. People knew that there were those at risk at home and wanted to help out. They are taking (meals) to them and checking in with them.”

The meal program was already growing before the pandemic, Mendoza explained, but even more so since the COVID-19 crisis hit.

Meals may be picked up weekdays from 11 a.m. to noon at the McConnell Adult Education Center.

The program is open to seniors 60 and older. A $3 donation is requested but not required.

Merced County residents may also participate, Mendoza noted.

Participants are required to complete a registration/intake form. Call 862-2158 to start the registration process.

Mendoza said she is pleased with the growth of the program, and hopes that those who are having meals delivered will join the congregate setting and enjoy the social aspect of the program as well when meals can again served to be enjoyed in-house at the McConnell Center.

“We knew that there was more of a need than was being met before. They asked us to build a program, and we built a program,” she remarked. “I am proud that we are able to offer that. People seem very happy with it.