SAN JOSE (KPIX 5) – It was a lifeline for many families when the COVID-19 pandemic started. Now for the first time this week, schools in San Jose are noticing fewer people driving up to their free lunch programs.

“Lately, it’s been dropping a little bit,” said Mireya Santiago, a food service worker at Linda Vista Elementary.

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Steaming hot chicken bites, rolls, fruit, and vegetables were all on the menu.

The to-go lunches are free to families with children, or practically anyone driving up whose hungry.

A family picks up a free meal at Linda Vista Elementary in San Jose. (CBS)

A family picks up a free meal at Linda Vista Elementary in San Jose. (CBS)

“It helps us out.  It gives us a good feeling,” said Bertha Taylor, a parent receiving lunches for her children..

“They need it and also they’ve been thankful for us being here for them,” Santiago said.

This week the Alum Rock School District says it’s feeding about 2,800 students, about 300 fewer students than average, and about 900 fewer than peak periods over the last year.

No one’s sure why it’s down but we could be seeing another sign of the re-opening of the economy.

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“As parents are going to back to work, it is going to be more difficult for parents to stop by and pick up meals,” said Denisse Mendez, Director of Child Nutrition Services for the Alum Rock School District.

Or, because parents are working again, some families could be less needy.

Mendez said numbers could go down even more next week when students return to school part time for in-person classes.

The food, a critical lifeline during the worst of the pandemic, continues to be important for some families.

“The children are only going to be going back for an hour-and-a-half so I can’t go to work work.  I have no one to take care of the kids,” said Dolores Gonzales, who drove up with her three children in an SUV,

And she says it helps a lot, that her children love the food.

“We like the cheese burgers, the grilled cheese and the egg rolls,” the children said, smiling.

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School officials say the free drive up meal program will continue through August, when children return to school full-time.