Lisa Chamberlain, an assistant professor of pediatrics who has practiced medicine at the Ravenswood Family Health Center in East Palo Alto since 2004, said a growing number of patients have been answering "no" to the standard question asked of all: "At the end of the month, do you have enough money for food and rent?"
"I've heard it over and over," said Chamberlain, who said the uptick began in 2009.
One patient, with a nursing 6-week-old on her lap and her 3-year-old sitting in the exam room, told Chamberlain: "'I'm hungry right now.'
"I know this family really well," Chamberlain said. "Her husband is a day laborer, and he hadn't found work. They're hardworking.
"As pediatricians, we've never seen a time of more material deprivation for children. I've never had so many patients telling me they're hungry.
"We've never had this many people, nationally, on food stamps. It's happening, and it's really profound."
About 45 million people — nearly one in seven U.S. residents — received food stamps in 2011, a 70 percent increase from 2007, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
About 70,427 schoolchildren in Santa Clara County and another 21,590 in San Mateo County qualify for the federally subsidized school breakfast and lunch program.
To qualify, a family of four may earn up to $29,965 for free lunches and up to $42,643 for reduced-price school breakfasts and lunches for their children.
Ravenswood Family Health Center has worked with the Ecumenical Hunger Program and other local groups to help feed children and families.
Last Thanksgiving, Chamberlain found herself in the back room of the Ecumenical Hunger Program's turkey distribution, spreading the food out across more boxes so there would be enough to go around for the people lined up outside.
"Then some people started coming back with their turkeys to ask for help cooking them because they were living in their cars. We realized we should have had pre-cooked options," she said.
Over the December holidays Chamberlain began thinking ahead to summer when the federal school lunch program, which supplies free or reduced-price lunches to the 3,000 K-8 students in the Ravenswood City School District students, would go on break.
She consulted with the school district before deciding to seek funds for summer food, raising enough to distribute about 600 packaged lunches a day in the cafeteria at the K-8 Cesar Chavez Academy. She raised funds from Lucile Packard Children's Hospital, Stanford University Medical Center, Stanford University and three anonymous local donors.
Ruth Woods, a former teacher and principal who now directs student services for the Ravenswood district, helped Chamberlain identify families most in need.
"We know who our homeless families are, who our foster families are, who's in need," said Woods, who volunteers with the lunchtime food distribution following her mornings of supervising summer school at Cesar Chavez.
The summer school, which offers an academic and enrichment program to 290 students, also serves its own federally funded free-and-reduced-price lunch to enrolled students.
Ninety percent of Ravenswood's 3,000 students meet income guidelines for the federal breakfast and lunch program.
But Chamberlain and Woods stressed that the Stanford program focuses on whole families.
"I can't feed the children and not their parents," Chamberlain said.
Each weekday at noon, a truck from vendor Revolution Foods delivers 600 prepackaged lunches that include a healthy sandwich —turkey and cheese, ham and cheese, peanut butter and jelly or chicken salad — and a fresh piece of fruit, pita chips and water.
Chamberlain typically arrives to help with check-in, while Woods and a group of sixth-grade volunteers hand out the allotted number of lunches per family.
Woods said 300 Ravenswood students — about 10 percent — are homeless or doubled up in apartments with more than one family.
"I have a lot of families that are with grandparents, or families that are two and three families in a home or apartment," she said.
Chamberlain said, "This is a service-providing community of gardeners and babysitters," noting that in her daily talks with the student volunteers she realized several were unfamiliar with the term "Silicon Valley."
Briana, one of the sixth-grade volunteers, said she and the others were recruited to help "because we're responsible.
"The people here are really nice," she said.
Giselle, another volunteer about to enter sixth grade at Willow Oaks Elementary School, said she enjoys helping people. "And we have fun giving out the food," she added.
The independent Ravenswood Education Foundation, which raises funds for the district, is underwriting the summer academic program and also acting as fiscal agent for Chamberlain's lunch program.
Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties also has made special efforts to feed children this summer.
According to the food bank's Caitlin Kerk, the agency is providing summer food to local programs that serve children, including Youth Community Service, Lauren's House 4 Positive Change, Palo Alto YMCA, Youth United for Community Action, Nuestra Casa Children's Program, Ecumenical Hunger Program, Build Peninsula, East Palo Alto Boxing Club, College Track, Girls to Women, Building Futures Now and the East Palo Alto YMCA.