It didn’t take long for Cynthia Dickinson to realize there was a food deficit on the Santa Rosa Junior College Petaluma campus. During the winter months, Dickinson, the school’s nurse practitioner, noticed that students were coming to the campus health center in the afternoon with headaches and stomach aches.

“They hadn’t had anything to eat yet,” Dickinson said. “I asked them about their access to food, and it turned out that many of them didn’t have food available. They were trying to live on $10 a week for their food budget, and they were running out of money.”

Dickinson brought in Clif energy bars to give to students who were lacking nutrition, but she also began working on a long-term solution ­— weekly free food distribution at SRJC’s Petaluma campus. Dickinson saw a clear need for such a program on the Petaluma campus, where about half of the students qualify for Medicaid because their income is at or below 138 percent of the federal poverty level.

“I remember those days of being a starving student,” Dickinson said. “How can you learn when you’re in pain and you’re uncomfortable and hungry?”

SRJC’s Santa Rosa campus has been distributing food to students since 2013, and continues to do so every Wednesday and Thursday morning. But Petaluma’s first distribution took place on Wednesday, Aug. 20, thanks to a partnership with the county’s Redwood Empire Food Bank. More than 100 students attended the event and were able to take home bags of fresh fruits, vegetables and bread.

With a few weeks of success under its belt, the program is set to continue every Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on the Petaluma campus, located at 680 Sonoma Mountain Parkway.

Ana Espinosa, an SRJC student who has participated in the distributions, said she’s thankful for the program.

Espinosa decided to go back to school two years ago after being fired from a job. But this semester, Espinosa took a break from classes and focused on work experience, because she couldn’t afford the supplies and books. With the expenses of tuition, books and gas to commute from her home in Sonoma, Espinosa often finds herself cash-strapped, even though she has a job as a student aide at SRJC’s health center and works as a care-giver on weekends.

“Being a student is expensive,” Espinosa said. “You don’t always have the money for extras like food. Sometimes I’m running low on funds, and there are times when I haven’t eaten for a day or two.”

Today, Espinosa said she doesn’t worry about food as much. With her newfound produce, she enjoys making fresh salads with apples, carrots, celery and peppers. In a life filled with homework, exams and paying the rent, eating healthy is one less thing she has to worry about because of the free produce provided by her school.

“This campus is really here to help students in any way possible,” Espinosa said.

(Contact Allison Jarrell at allison.jarrell@argus courier.com)