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SD Families Find Helping Hand in Growing Free Lunch Program


For seven years the San Diego Unified School District has provided free summer lunches to kids. Some people say the program is needed now more than ever.

— For seven years the San Diego Unified School District has provided free summer lunches to kids. Some people say the program is needed now more than ever.

At noon one day last week a line wound through Kearny Mesa Park. Parents and kids were waiting to grab a barbecue lunch and to sit down to an hour of games and crafts. For parents like Kim Hughes, it was a nice excuse to get out to the park.

“I think it’s something good that keeps the kids occupied during the summer. It’s really nice that they do it,” she said.

The barbecue was meant to be more than just a good time. It was part of the free summer lunch program organized by San Diego Unified School District and the Parks and Recreation Department. This summer kids between 2 and 18 years old can get free lunch Monday through Friday at more than 50 schools, parks and other community locations.

At the barbecue, kids got a hot dog or hamburger, baked beans, fruit, salad and milk. All for free. Parents could dig in for just $2. There were also huge crates of plums, cantaloupe, corn on the cob and lettuce provided by the San Diego Food Bank. Each family could get a box of the produce to take home.

For some San Diego families, the free lunch program is a lifeline. Celeste Bobryk-Ozaki brought her three children to the barbecue and said she’s planning on making it to as many of the special lunch events as she can.

“This is my second year doing this because I’ve actually been out of work close to two years. It helps me out a lot because of cash flow – it’s just not coming in at the moment – but we don’t qualify for any other services either," she said. "Here, there’s no enrollment no qualification process, you just show up. It’s just a way for me to get some food for the family and if I have too much I give it to my friends. And, the girls seem to like it.”

Funding comes from the USDA and is geared at getting healthy meals to the nearly 60 percent of San Diego public school students who qualify for free or reduced price lunch while school is out.

Last year the school district served 250,000 free summer meals. That was 83 percent more than in 2008. Joanne Tucker runs the program for the school district. She says since they started serving lunches on June 24 there has been a small increase over last year.

The number of meals served through programs like this one has actually declined across California in recent years. Tucker said the drop is tied to state cuts to summer school.

“There’s a lot of school districts in the state that don’t have summer school at all. So, they can do the summer program from places other than school districts, but when they don’t have school districts on board the number of sites go way down,” she said.

San Diego also lost summer school sites this year. But the district’s partnership with the parks department meant they could make up for it by adding more Summer Fun Cafes like the one in Kearny Mesa.

The cafes serve sack lunches and milk four days a week and have a weekly pizza day. Each café is also hosting two special events, a barbecue and a Mexican fiesta. Marilyn Stern is the parks department’s liaison to the program. She said these events are another way the program is growing.

“The Fiesta special event is a brand new feature. We tried the barbecues last year, they were wonderful and we said, well, let’s offer another special event,” Stearn said.

Toward the end of the Kearny Mesa barbecue, the rec center’s president, Dixie Wilson, said 112 kids have shown up.

“It’s necessary because there’s so many hungry kids," Wilson said. "Some kids, the only time they get to eat is when they come here for lunch.”

None of the kids seemed to have such weighty issues on their minds. Four-year-old Mandy Hughes has been to three of the café special events.

“It’s so fun because you have a park," she said.

The summer lunch program runs through August 27. Times and locations are posted on the school district and parks department websites.

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