SALIDA — Summer suppers in air-conditioned comfort, offering popular entrees and ample fresh produce, have drawn fewer diners than expected, despite costing little or nothing.
"I really thought we'd be doing hundreds and hundreds of meals," said Billy Reid, director of the expanded summer program run by Salida Union and Stanislaus Union school districts. "I thought more people would have needed this service."
Summer breakfasts and lunches are being gobbled up, he said. It's the new dinner option the community finds hard to swallow.
But Janet Torres is sold on the idea. Eating dinner with her three children at Salida Elementary on Wednesday, she said, "We get to talk. It's stress-free."
Jacob, 12, Abel, 3, and Hannah, 10, each chose something different from a menu of pizza, hamburgers, deli sandwiches and roast chicken with corn on the cob.
"I think it's affordable. It's close to home and there's a big selection. Here they're all happy with something," Torres said.
Other moms said they enjoyed not having to cook, do the dishes or heat up the house.
Gloria Salgado said she meets up with her sister-in-law for outdoor lunches at Salida Middle School. "It's like having a picnic," she said.
Eating a relaxed dinner with her children while recovering from foot surgery, Salgado said, "The food is delicious and you can't beat the price. For the adults it's $2!"
Kids eat for free no income caps to meet and no forms to fill out. Many school districts and some community organizations offer the lunches. But Reid's programs have stretched that to three squares a day.
A mobile Food Patrol RV and van bring bag breakfasts and lunches to six locations around Salida, serving 8,000 meals in its first two weeks on the road, Reid said.
Breakfast and lunch are offered from 8 to 9:30 a.m. and 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Dena Boer Elementary and Salida Middle School, and through the north Modesto Stanislaus Union district, at Chrysler and Agnes Baptist elementary schools.
Dinner is served from 4 to 6 p.m. at Salida Elementary and, in north Modesto, Prescott Junior High.
"It tastes better than McDonald's," said Anjel Aguilar, 12, munching a low-fat burger on whole wheat bun with lettuce, tomato, pickles and a bag of corn chips.
The entrees, all made in-house, hew to Reid's USDA Gold Award of Distinction-winning nutritional menu. A salad bar laden with crisp raw vegetables and ranch dressing, coleslaw and fresh fruit offers unlimited extras for hungry kids.
Cris Miller mans the produce buffet. Officially, she's there to make sure each tray has at least a half cup's worth of produce to meet menu guidelines. But she spends most of her time encouraging kids to load up on fresh extras. "They've never tried it. But then they try it and like it," Miller said.
She also supervises kids gleefully smashing down no-knives cutters, sectioning apples and oranges for easy eating.
Torres said, "I like the fact they offer the parents a way to eat, too. We can eat as a family."
Other school districts are offering free lunches for children this summer, including Modesto City Schools, www.mcs4kids.com, and Turlock Unified, http://cnd.turlock.k12.ca.us. Find a site near you at www.whyhunger.org/findfood.