Local schools are offering more sites for free summer breakfast and lunch programs to help meet the growing demand for nutritional meals for local families, according to officials.
The National School Lunch Program and National School Breakfast Program are federally-funded programs that offer free breakfasts and lunches to qualifying schools, said Loretta Zullo, director of food and nutrition for MPS, who helps run the food programs during the summer as well as during the school year.
Students do not have to qualify individually. As long as their school qualifies, they are able to go to the school during scheduled times and have breakfast and lunch for free.
The program is regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture and the food cooked must meet nutritional standards put forth by the USDA to ensure kids are receiving healthy meals.
Service is available to all children ages 18 and younger.
For general information about the Summer Food Service Program, visit www.azsummerfood.gov.
To qualify, a school must have 50 percent of its students signed up for the free and reduced food programs during the school year, Ms. Zullo said.
"This summer, Mesa Public Schools will offer breakfast and lunch at 45 campuses, and lunch at 12 parks, two recreation centers and a church," according to a press release from MPS.
For a full list of participating sites, visit http://www.mpsaz.org/food and click on the ‘Friends, Fun and Free Food' graphic on the homepage.
The meals, which are free to children ages 18 and younger, may be purchased by adults at a rate of $1.25 for breakfast and $3 for lunch, according to the release.
The school district's Food and Nutrition Department employees will serve the meals to help keep children from going hungry this summer.
"Their goal is to ensure that children continue to receive nutritious meals when school is not in session," according to the release.
During the regular school year a school must maintain a minimum of 50 percent of enrolled students being a part of the free and reduced lunch program. Ms. Zullo said 57 percent of students enrolled at schools in the MPS qualify for the summer program.
"Arizona was hit kind of hard," Ms. Zullo said in regard to the economic downturn.
There are more sites in Mesa this year than ever before offering the free summer meals programs because more schools are qualifying due to more students qualifying for the free and reduced food programs offered during the regular school year, she said.
It's a simple, straightforward program, Ms. Zullo said. She has been involved in the program the past 17 years , and the service to the community hasn't changed much during that time.
"I think (the program) bridges a gap for many families... it helps them stretch those food dollars if they are trying to make ends meet," she said.
"I think many students would struggle if the program didn't exist. If both parents are working, kids may not make the best food choices."
Parents are welcome to bring their children to the participating sites and may purchase meals for themselves. Parents are not required to accompany their children.
Many kids are coming from summer programs or from by the pool and can go and get the meal for themselves without an adult present, Ms. Zullo said.
Most meals will be served for at least one hour, but the parks will serve meals for only 20 minutes, according to the release.
Queen Creek Unified School District will offer the free summer meal programs at four locations this summer, according to a QCUSD press release.
The four locations are Queen Creek High School, 22149 E. Ocotillo Road; Frances Brandon Pickett Elementary School, 22076 E. Village Loop Road; Queen Creek Community Center, 22407 E. Ellsworth Road; and Newell Barney Junior High School, 24937 S. Sossaman.
"The Summer Meal Program is designed to fill the nutritional gap and make sure children can get the nutritious meals they need when they are out of school," said Carol Weekly, director of child nutrition for QCUSD. "We are in our fourth year operating the program in the district."
Children do not have to qualify to attend the free meal programs. Any child 18 years of age or younger can simply show up and receive a free meal. The meal, however, must be eaten on site, Ms. Weekly said.
There are no income requirements and any child age 18 and younger may come to eat, according to a press release from QCUSD.
Additionally, adults may purchase meals at all participating sites.
"We offer this service to help fill the hunger and/or nutrition gap that some families face during the summer months when children are not in school," Ms. Weekly said.
"We have many families who face hunger insecurity and this program is designed to help take the burden off them and to provide a well-balanced nutritious meal to the children. It is important to remember that children can be affected negatively by our slow economy. Our goal is to take care of them during the summer."
The program hasn't changed much over the four years it has been offered, other than the fact that Queen Creek is serving more families this year, Ms. Weekly said.
In order to help serve more families, the community has also added a new site for the program at Newell Barney Junior High.
A hot and cold entrée are available each day as part of the program.
"I think the program is important to the community because there are many families who face financial hurdles. It may not be prevalent to everyone but there are families who suffer in silence," Ms. Weekly said.
"This is our way of providing a nourishing meal to children and hopefully this will help the family get through the summer months without having to worry about where the next meal is coming from or worrying about choosing if the money will pay the utility bill during the hot summer months or (pay for) food."
For information on QCUSD Summer Meal Program, contact Carol Weekly at email@example.com.
The Apache Junction Unified School District will offer the free USDA Summer Food Program, which provides free, nutritious meals to children, at three sites this summer, according to a press release from AJUSD.
The three locations are Cactus Canyon Junior High School, 801 W. Southern Ave.; Boys and Girls Club of Apache Junction, 1755 N. Idaho Road; and the Greater Valley Area Health Education Center, 2066 W. Apache Trail.
All children are eligible for free meals regardless of age or family income, according to the release.
"The program was established to ensure that low income children continue to receive nutritious meals during vacation breaks," said Karen Warhus, the food service director for AJUSD.
"Meals are provided to all children at approved sites in areas with significant concentrations of low income children."
AJUSD has added two more locations this year, Ms. Warhus said. Breakfast is offered at CCJHS and the Boys and Girls Club of Apache Junction this year.
"We have the opportunity to help families get through the hot summer by offering nutritious meals," she said. "We would love to see more families take advantage of this program."
Adult meals may be purchased onsite for $1.60 for breakfast and $2.75 for lunch.
Only one free meal will be provided per child, per visit, and all food must be consumed on site, according to the release.
Menus are available online at www.ajusd.org and at all service locations.
For more information, contact AJUSD at 480-982-1110 ext. 2314.
Editor's Note: Nora Heston is the news services assistant for the Apache Junction/Gold Canyon, Queen Creek/San Tan Valley and East Mesa Independent newspapers. She can be reached at 480-982-7799 or firstname.lastname@example.org.