Schools summer meal programs help cut food costs - East Valley Tribune: News

Schools summer meal programs help cut food costs

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Posted: Thursday, June 5, 2008 9:34 pm | Updated: 9:44 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Looking at your family's budget, it probably seems the daily cost of living is inching up every day.

Gas has officially broken the $4 mark in the East Valley. Milk is $3 a gallon. A loaf of plain old white bread will set you back another $3.

But there's one place where you can get Belgian waffles with syrup, sausage in a blanket, cheeseburgers or pizza for the same price as last year and the year before that free.

Schools across the East Valley started their summer food programs this week, serving children 18 years and younger free breakfast and lunch. At the same locations, adults can get a complete meal for between $1.25 and $3.

"What a smokin' deal," said Debbie McCarron, food services director in the Gilbert Unified School District. "If I had kids, I would drop them off at the pool at Mesquite, let them swim for free and have lunch for free. I might even have lunch myself. For $2.50, it's hard to beat."

Gilbert schools offer both free lunch and breakfast throughout the week at Harris Elementary and Mesquite Junior High, which also has a swimming pool open to the public for a small fee.

This is the first year a Gilbert school has qualified for the program, so McCarron has no previous experience with which to compare the service. But, she said, based on the first few days of serving meals, the district is averaging about 500 lunches and 200 breakfasts every day.

While schools serve free and reduced-price lunches during the school year to children who qualify, the criteria change a bit during the summer. For the summer program, the neighborhood surrounding the school has to have 50 percent or more households with income levels at or below the poverty level.

Once a site qualifies, no proof of eligibility is needed, so anyone can walk in to the school on any given day and have either a free or cheap meal, depending on age.

You don't even necessarily have to live in the neighborhood, said Linda Rider, associate superintendent in the Tempe Elementary School District.

At schools such as Nevitt Elementary, she's seen an increase in the number of people interested in the food program, which she said could be related to the economy, but could also be tied to an increased effort to get the word out this year.

While it's been in operation for only four days this year, the Mesa Unified School District's food program also seems to be experiencing an increase in use.

"We're serving several hundred more meals per day than usual," said Loretta Zullo, food services director. "It's hard to make a total connection to the economy, but I think that's at play."

The Mesa district has been involved with the program for more than a decade.

"It's a program that has grown from one year to the next, which is, I think, related to the changing demographics in Mesa," Zullo said.

Mesa has between 20 and 22 schools serving meals each summer. The district tries to tie the service to schools with other summer programs to keep operating costs low and attract the most students.

Summer feeding programs are funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture and administered through the state Department of Education.

Last year in Arizona, the program served 350,000 breakfasts and 675,000 lunches, according to Mary Szafranski, deputy associate superintendent for health and nutrition at the state agency. But the goal, she said, is serving many more.

"Always, our main priority is to increase the number of children who participate," she said. "Whether the economy is good or bad, the program is very underutilized."

The challenge is in getting the word out and in finding sites to house the program.

According to the USDA, Americans spend about 13 percent of their disposable income on food inside and outside the home. As times get a little tougher, local schools are hoping more people will see this program as a way to manage that budget.

School lunches can evoke certain, perhaps unappetizing, images for some, but the school lunch officials say they are providing a balanced hot meal each day, as well as a lunchbox-type meal with a simple peanut butter and jelly sandwich, yogurt and a piece of fruit, for example, so there are options available.

"It's a tremendous value to stretch your dollar, which we all know has gone through the roof," Zullo said.

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