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School's out, but free lunch for kids is in

Addie Broyles, Relish Austin

Staff Writer
Austin 360

Every afternoon, Leo Santana calls the Capital Area Food Bank to tell them how many sack lunches he'll need for the kids who come to Boys and Girls Club in East Austin, where he is the director.

"We're in our first week (of the summer program), and we're already up to 75 lunches," he says outside the building on top of a hill that once housed Anderson High School.

"We started at 50 on Monday, and we'll be up to 125 or 150 a day by the end of the summer."

As word of free lunch spreads and the pocket change to buy Lunchables at the corner market runs out, more kids take advantage of the Texas Department of Agriculture's Summer Nutrition Programs, which last year gave out 21 million meals to children 18 and younger, up from 19 million the year before.

That number might seem high, but fewer than 20 percent of the students who qualify for free or reduced lunches during the school year take advantage of the free lunches during the summer.

Some schools continue offering lunches through summer school but stop once summer school ends. To help fill in the gaps are dozens of community centers, nonprofits, churches and even apartment complexes that are meal sites for the department's summer nutrition program.

The sack lunches served at the Boys and Girls Club in East Austin aren't much — usually a ham and cheese or peanut butter and jelly sandwich, veggies such as celery or carrots, fruit and milk — but for some kids, it's all they'll get to eat before dark.

"Even though it's a sack lunch, it's more sustenance than they'd usually get at home" eating frozen pizzas or ramen noodles, Santana says.

Jaz Clark, 9, and Dedra Hardeman, 11, cousins who come to the Boys and Girls Club during the summer, say they enjoy the sack lunches because they are sensible meals that include milk and vegetables, which they request at dinnertime, too.

Both girls are well-versed in how to eat healthfully. They prefer white milk over the sugar-filled strawberry and chocolate varieties, and both have helped shape the meals they get at home by requesting baked foods instead of fried and healthy side dishes. "You can't have a big old dessert every night," Hardeman says.

Anyone younger than 18 can show up to one of the almost 100 host sites in Austin, some of which also serve breakfast, and get a free lunch without bringing any paperwork or identification, says Veronica Beyer, chief communications officer for the department of agriculture.

Beyer says that they are adding meal sites almost every day and that the best way to find one near you is by going to www.summerfood.org or by calling 211. (Churches, nonprofits or schools that are interested in becoming a meal site can use those same methods to find out how they can enroll.)

Many of the host sites are tucked away in neighborhoods where it's easy for kids to walk to them, so they don't have to rely on transportation, either.

Without access to these lunches, it's a long three months until school starts again for children who are considered "food insecure" because they don't always have a steady source for food.

Santana knows first hand how this doesn't just make them hungry; it makes their minds wander and they are more likely to misbehave.

"It affects their behavior and how comfortable they are here. They aren't as irritable if they have lunch," Santana says. "It's what carries them through the day."

abroyles@statesman.com; 912-2504