Health & Fitness

Free lunches don’t end when school’s out. Modesto’s summer program adds books to mix.

Modesto’s summer lunch program adds books to mix

Modesto City Schools and Stanislaus County Library partner to give needy kids summer lunch and books.
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Modesto City Schools and Stanislaus County Library partner to give needy kids summer lunch and books.

For some Modesto kids, summertime can mean going without food — and reading. Modesto City Schools and the Stanislaus County Library have teamed up to make sure healthy nutrition and learning don’t end with the last school bell of the year.

With the library partnership, the Summer Food Service Program is offering books and crafts with lunch, free to kids and teens 18 and younger in select parks throughout the area. Everyone is welcome — no registration or identification required.

The library also is working with summer food programs in the Waterford and Sylvan Union school systems, through a grant from the California Library Association. Annie Snell, supervising librarian for Youth Services Outreach, said the summer food program was a great way to get books to needy children.

“We wanted to go to locations where the people can’t get to the library,” said Snell while directing the “pop-up” library during lunch at Mancini Park, just south of the Tuolumne River near Ceres. With free books, she hopes to keep the kids reading during the summer.

The addition of fun learning activities to the lunch program is unique, and aims to minimize the learning loss while school is out. Nicknamed the “summer slide,” knowledge loss can range from 20% to 50% for reading and math.

“Combining literacy with food is a natural fit,” said Criss Atwell, senior director of Modesto City Schools Nutrition Services.

Atwell has been in his position for 25 years. He works closely with Christina Wudijono, registered dietitian and assistant director, and Chef Dee Moore to deliver more than 2,000 nutritious meals to 20 locations, plus schools with summer sessions.

“We procure locally as much as possible,” said Wudjono. They work with AgLink to purchase fruits and vegetables with funding through a U.S. Department of Agriculture pilot program. AgLink works to connect food service programs with locally grown farm produce.

Across California, nearly 2 million children face hunger and depend upon school lunch for their nutrition. In Stanislaus County and local city schools, 49 to 97 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-cost lunch programs during the school year.

Dee Moore is a formally trained, French-style chef and brings her creativity to the meal preparation. She incorporates student feedback when introducing new menu items, including focus groups for taste testing. She visits the park sites once or twice a week to monitor how the lunches are received.

“We get plenty of positive feedback,” said Moore. “And it’s great that we can get food to where the kids are in need.”

The program is vital for struggling families.

Erin Aguilar brings her four children, ages 2 through 11, to Downey Park almost every weekday for lunch. Her husband is a farm worker and making ends meet can be difficult. Aguilar said, “I like that the food is different every day and the kids get a good variety.”

The family laid out a fluffy purple blanket and ate picnic-style. Even 2-year-old Ben and 4-year-old Austin stopped playing for lunchtime.

Wednesday’s menu included turkey hot dogs on chef-made wheat buns, veggies, corn chips, fruit and cold water. Rylee Aguilar, who turns 11 in July, said, “I like that it’s healthy! We get veggies and two choices of white or chocolate milk.”

Jorge , 8, said he was happy to have the food and the chance to play in the park. Aguilar said her children like reading and they’re looking forward to the pop-up library at Downey on June 25.

Stanislaus County, as well as other area school districts, also are operating sites for free meals. Lunches are typically served in the late morning and early afternoon. The Modesto City Schools website — mcs4kids.com — has a list of all the lunch sites and library pop-up dates throughout the summer.

The Summer Food Service Program and school lunch programs are funded in part through the USDA.

“Many students don’t have access to healthy, nutritious meals during the summer months and we are able to bridge that gap,” said Atwell. “We’ve been doing that for 25 years and we’ll continue to do it in the future.”

This story was produced with financial support from The Stanislaus County Office of Education and the Stanislaus Community Foundation, along with the GroundTruth Project’s Report for America initiative. The Modesto Bee maintains full editorial control of this work.

ChrisAnna Mink is pediatrician and health reporter for The Modesto Bee. She covers children’s health in Stanislaus County and the Central Valley. Her position is funded through the financial support from The Stanislaus County Office of Education and the Stanislaus Community Foundation, along with The GroundTruth Project’s Report for America initiative. The Modesto Bee maintains full editorial control of her work.
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