SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - Local organizations have seen a noticeable drop in attendance at free summer meal events in Santa Barbara County this year.
Organizers believe the threat of immigration raids has stoked "palpable" fear in local communities, causing more families to stay away from public gatherings.
Reports circulated Thursday that ICE agents plan to make sweeps for undocumented immigrants in major U.S. cities this Sunday.
"There doesn't seem to be as much congregating in parks… like there's a sense of insecurity," says Santa Barbara Unified School District Food Services Director Nancy Weiss.
"It just breaks my heart actually to think about a mom not sending her child to get a free meal that they need out of any kind of fear," said Laura Capps of the Santa Barbara Unified School District.
Those that attended Thursday's summer meal at the United Boys & Girls Club on Santa Barbara's Westside did get a surprise: a visit from actor and local resident Jeff Bridges.
His passion for ending childhood hunger helped start the events in 2013.
"We know how to do it," Bridges said. "We have enough food. We have enough money. The challenge is to create the political will."
Bridges is the national spokesperson for No Kid Hungry, one of the organizations that puts on the free summer meals.
"The thing that keeps hunger in place is the lack of community," he said. "And Santa Barbara has such a wonderful community."
The Foodbank of Santa Barbara County says roughly 34,000 kids need nutritional help during the summer. The Foodbank says it is concerned about people not getting the nutrition they need—especially kids.
The summer meals feed anyone 18 and younger for free, with no need for IDs or documents.
Despite more and more locations for these free meals, however, fewer and fewer kids are showing up.
"I hope the politics don't get in the way of feeding hungry kids," Bridges said.
The current fear in immigrant communities is motivation for Bridges to do more to help the community.
"What kind of world do I wanna see for my kids and my grandkids?" Bridges said. "I do my best to create that world. And I use people who are thinking a different way, I use them to inspire me to get to work. To come out and be part of the community. Make it as healthy a community as possible."
Free summer meals will continue throughout the county this summer.
To find the nearest free meal location, text "SUMMERFOOD" to 877-877.
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