Times are tough in some neighborhoods.
And for those who are struggling, a free meal can seem like a godsend. A free meal every weekday for a family of six may make the difference between paying the rent — or not.
"Six of us in a two-bedroom. It's hard, but we're making it," said Melinda Brownlow, who brought two of her grandchildren and two of their friends to a summer meals program that sets up each morning and afternoon on a patch of green earth at North Chester Avenue and Norris Road in Oildale.
School's out for summer, and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Kern County are offering free breakfast and “supper” to the children of Oildale — and other locations, too.
Breakfast is available from 10 to 11 a.m., and dinner begins at 4 p.m. and is served until 5 (or until the food runs out).
"My husband works for Target, and we're thankful, but it is hard for us," said Deborah Cook, who brought her brood of five kids to sit on red-and-white checked blankets spread out beneath a tree on the lush, green lawn surrounded by hot, North Chester asphalt, concrete and a community that probably needs more help than it receives.
"Any little thing like this helps. I try to take advantage," Cook said. "I wish more people would come. They said if not enough people come, they might stop serving here."
As her children dined on chicken strips, mashed potatoes, corn on the cob and milk, Cook watched empty-handed. The food is only for children age 2 through 17.
Paula Dawson, a nutrition coordinator for the Boys & Girls Clubs, said the club is developing meal sites at about eight locations — but in truth there are dozens, maybe hundreds of the USDA Summer Meal Programs up and running across the county, at schools and other locations, administered by nonprofits and other organizations.
On Tuesday, the Oildale site served 30 meals. But in Lamont, a site might draw 100 or more.
Dawson didn't have a comprehensive list of the centers operated by the clubs as some are still in flux. But anyone with a smartphone or computer can go to www.fns.usda.gov/summerfoodrocks and type in city and ZIP code to get the nearest meal sites to their home.
Earlier Tuesday, during the breakfast session, Eric Garcia watched as his five children chowed down on Honey Nut Cheerios, milk and fresh fruit.
His wife, Adriana, is bringing home the bacon, but a back injury has sidelined Garcia. However, they save on child daycare as he watches over the children.
The day before, breakfast was biscuits and gravy, a combination Garcia's 11-year-old David used just one word to describe.
"Bomb," he said, grinning.
"Much appreciation goes to the Boys & Girls Club," Garcia said. "My kids are great kids. They're athletes and they get good grades in school. But, man, to feed five kids all summer! Something like this helps."
Kern County Supervisor Mike Maggard, who represents Oildale as part of his district, came by the site Tuesday afternoon to see how it was going.
He supports and sponsors the Boys & Girls Clubs' effort, but he really credited the Oildale Community Action Team and its founder Donna Clopton for always showing up and asking how they can help.
Dawson also praised Clopton and company for everything they do to keep making Oildale better, from graffiti cleanup and anti-crime efforts to trash pickup and community outreach.
"Probably the best thing Oildale has going for it are the good people of Oildale have come out and offered their support and help," Maggard said.
The attendance is not as robust as it could be, he said of the meal service. But he hopes word of mouth and news stories will help spread the word.
"Some people in Oildale have really stepped up," Dawson said. "They're motivated to help."
Indeed, an O-CAT volunteer was at the site Tuesday morning.
"I may need to move to Oildale," Dawson quipped. "These people are really welcoming. Isn't that what you want a neighbor to be?"