With all the concern over childhood obesity, it's easy to forget that some kids still go hungry.
Federally funded summer nutrition programs provide the free meal many students count on all fall, winter and spring. Think of it as school lunch without the homework.
The Seamless Summer program targets areas where at least half the children in the community qualify for free or reduced-price lunches during the school year. Meals are free to anyone 18 and younger at dozens of schools, parks and other sites in Stanislaus and Merced counties.
In the Chrysler Elementary School cafeteria last week, more than 250 children ate and parents chatted, enjoying the air conditioning. The school also offers free breakfast, both through a contract with Salida Union's child nutrition program.
"We come for breakfast and lunch. It's a big help, a biiig help," said Jennifer Sadorra as her daughter Jazmyne loaded her plate.
It was the second week for the program at Chrysler, and the number of families served rises every day, said Billy Reid, Salida's director of child nutrition services. He's also seen higher numbers at long-established sites he serves in Salida. "There's a tremendous need out there," Reid said.
Families take advantage of the meals to make ends meet, but most said they provide dinner at home. Lucia Hernandez, however, said the roasted chicken, corn on the cob and strawberries her daughters devoured would be their main meal of the day. Kids said they came daily, also for the free break- fast. Pizza seemed to be everyone's favorite, never mind that the cafeteria version has a whole grain crust, a less salty sauce and less string in its cheese.
Healthy fruits and vegetables
The federal program demands better-for-you recipes, with lots of healthy fruits and vegetables, and pays meal providers about $3 per lunch, $2 per breakfast. To offset the higher cost of high-quality foods, the U.S. Department of Agriculture allows providers to buy fresh produce and other staples for pennies on the dollar.
Reid, dressed that day as a giant banana, earned national recognition last year for Salida's high-caliber cafeteria food, among the healthiest in the state. But on May 8, he became a true believer.
That day Reid was diagnosed with Type II diabetes and his triglycerides read off the chart. "My doctor said my blood was sludge. I could have a heart attack at any time," he said.
He now follows at home the USDA My Plate menu that guides cafeteria meals.
"My Plate saved my life," said a leaner, greener Reid. He's lost 19 pounds and has brought his triglycerides into normal range with a veggie-heavy diet and daily exercise.
Reid also feels better making speeches about his award-winning school lunch program. "Being a food services director, I should be an example," he said. "I felt uncomfortable being obese, talking to kids about obesity."
Not to mention, it's easier to get into his banana costume.
Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2339.
The meals are free to anyone 18 and younger. They are provided in dozens of schools, parks and other sites this summer. To find one near you, call the National Hunger Hotline at 866-348-6479 or 877-842-6273, or go to www.whyhunger.org/findfood.