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A Fern Street circus performer puts on a show. Courtesy photo
Neighborhoods

San Diego Families Experiencing Hunger Get a Real Treat

On a Tuesday afternoon, cars were lined up at Knox Middle School in Lincoln Park. The line extended out of the parking lot and wrapped around 49th Street. Dozens of cars inched forward to collect food for school-aged children as part of San Diego Unified School District’s Curbside Grab and Go meal program, which takes place weekdays at schools throughout the district.  

As vehicles moved forward people were treated to an unexpected show. There’s a man riding a unicycle, a child juggling and another performer tumbling. The announcer, who  spoke in both English and Spanish, introduced the performers as the Fern Street Circus

"They were delighted when they pulled up in their cars to receive their food and they were able to see the circus performing,” said John Highkin, executive director for the Fern Street Circus.

The circus has entertained people in San Diego since 1990 with the goal of building community connections. There’s also an educational aspect to the acrobatics. The group runs after-school programs in City Heights, serving as a vehicle to overcome language and cultural barriers, forging friendships and learning the importance of health and wellness. But like many organizations, the pandemic stopped the Fern Street Circus operations for months. 

Highkin said it was tough for the instructors and the performers to be cut off from working with communities in need. But, a partnership with San Diego schools is giving the Fern Street Circus a chance to reconnect. 

The circus’s fall neighborhood tour typically consists of pop-up performances at community parks. It has been reimagined to smaller performances at food distribution centers at San Diego schools. 

A Fern Street Circus performer. Courtesy photo


"It's heartbreaking what's happening but at least we're making contact with families in a way that is unusual,” Highkin said. “It surprises them in a good way and it surprises them in what would otherwise be a pretty dreary activity.” 

Fern Street’s leaders also continue to do outreach in the City Heights and Mid-City neighborhoods where the circus has worked for decades. 

Marcela Mercado is a parent of three after-school children and a board member. She has taken the position as co-emcee for the pop-up performances. 

“I feel happy when I'm doing the announcement in Spanish and English and I see kids smiling and picking up their lunches and getting to interact with people from the car,” Mercado said. “We're bringing a smile and hope to them."  

As a longtime City Heights parent leader, Mercado communicates with families via a parent support group.

“It's been difficult for most families here in City Heights,” she said. 

Along with food insecurity, Mercado says some families are dealing with job loss and the added pressures of remote learning.

The circus school tour comes after a successful summer series at food distribution sites organized by community organizations serving South San Diego and South Bay. Episcopal Community Services is one such nonprofit. 

Lesslie Keller, executive director for the nonprofit, says her team handed out about 60,000 meals to the families of children in Head Start, an early education program for low-income families.  

"For the families, it's job insecurity,” she said. “It is the inability to buy some of the necessities like diapers for their children and rent — people having problems making their rent. Employment has gone away for many.”

The Fern Street Circus shares its spotlight with social issues. This year’s tour included information about voting and the importance of taking part in Census 2020 leading up to the Oct.15 deadline. Keller says there’s overlap in the population served by Episcopal Community Services and the ones at-risk for being undercounted. 

"I think there's sometimes a reluctance to fill out forms particularly when there's a language barrier and there may not be a complete understanding of why they're giving out personal information,” she said.

As the pandemic continues, families depend on San Diego nonprofits. Anti-hunger organizations say they’re experiencing a significant spike in need amid what medical experts warn is the first wave of coronavirus. The San Diego Region health officials report that COVID-19 cases are down slightly. Still, some states are dealing with a spike in cases as the U.S. records more than 8.9 million cases as of Thursday, according to John Hopkins University.

Organizations such as the San Diego Food Bank report a “skyrocketing” demand for assistance. It is feeding about 600,000 people a month. That is nearly double the number of people before the pandemic. 

For the Fern Street Circus, it’s still important to reach communities in need despite the challenges. The circus has performed 35 curbside shows and counting thus far. 

"It's an unusual venue but it allows us to at least be out in neighborhoods,” Highkin said. “(It) is important to everything we do and to be reaching people who have needs.”

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About the Author

Ebone Monet

Ebone Monet is a veteran journalist with more than a decade of experience covering breaking news including election coverage, natural disasters, and high profile trials. A San Diego native, she's also the former KPBS anchor.

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