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San Diego’s Free Summer Lunch Program Keeps Growing

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The number of California children getting free summer lunches through a federal program from the Department of Agriculture has dropped in recent years. San Diego, however, is bucking that trend.

— The number of California children getting free summer lunches through a federal program from the Department of Agriculture has dropped in recent years. San Diego, however, is bucking that trend.

Last year the San Diego Unified School District’s free summer lunch program served 250,000 meals. That’s up from 17,000 when the program started in 2004.

Last week the school district and parks department started serving free lunch at more than 30 schools and parks. Between now and August 27th, lunch will be served Monday through Friday to any child 2 to 18 years old at more than 50 locations.

More than 77,000 San Diego public school students qualify for free or reduced price lunch during the school year. The summer lunch program is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and is aimed at making sure kids that rely on those meals during the school year can still get a nutritious lunch over the summer.

According to Joanne Tucker, who runs the summer lunch program for the school district, participation has often dropped in areas where school districts have reduced summer school programs or cut them all together.

She attributes San Diego's success to the school district's partnerships with the parks department and other organizations.

“We have similar goals and we all are working together toward the same thing and that’s offering good, nutritious, healthy food to these kids when it’s not available at their schools,” she said.

Twenty-three of the more than 50 lunch locations are in city parks. Last year each park hosted a barbecue where parents could eat with their kids for $2 per adult. The barbecues were so popular that this summer each park is adding a Mexican fiesta day.

Marilyn Stern runs these Summer Fun Cafés for the Parks and Recreation Department.

“We’re trying to send two messages very loud and clear – nutrition, healthy eating and physical activity. So, at each of the special events we’re offering games like limbo, obstacle courses,” she said.

On special event days families can also take home free produce donated by the San Diego Food Bank and Feed America San Diego.

Information about lunch times and locations are posted on the school district and parks department websites.

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