PEORIA – On a scorching summer day, children run and laugh as they pelt each other with dodgeballs in the gym of Sundance Elementary School.
OK, guys, pipe down, a volunteer counselor tells them. Lunch is about to be served.
They scramble over to rows of long tables, demolishing hamburgers and yogurt parfaits swirled with fresh peaches. The broccoli? Not so much.
For many of the 30 kids at this Peoria school, this may be the only meal they get all day.
Six out of 10 kids in the state qualify for free and reduced-price lunches at school, but most go hungry during the summer, said José Urteaga, spokesman for child nutrition at St. Mary’s Food Bank Alliance.
But they don’t have to do without, because a federal program feeds students one or two meals a day at dozens of schools and locations throughout Arizona.
“What we try to do is come in and bridge that gap so students in Arizona don’t have to go hungry during the summer,” Urteaga said.
Go here for a searchable list of summer meal locations in the state.
The Peoria Unified School District and St. Mary’s Kids Cafe are among the programs that offer free meals and activities for school-age children. Both programs are funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Summer Food Service Program, established to provide low-income children with meals in the gap between the school year.
Urteaga said only 15 percent of students who qualify get the help they need in the summer, so they’re missing out on nutrition, which affects their mental and physical development.
Robin Thurman, a kitchen manager in the Peoria district, said every meal is based on key nutritional components: grains, protein, fruit, vegetables and milk. Many locations have a salad bar so children can pick and choose a healthy snack, and they offer options for children with dietary restrictions.
“What they usually don’t get at home is what they like to see served here, like fresh fruits and vegetables,” Thurman said. “Parents also often come and say, ‘You got my kid to eat broccoli, how did you do that?’
Any child can go to a summer program site, regardless of where they live or their economic status. It’s free for age 18 or younger. In the Peoria district, meals are also available to people 19 or older for a small fee: $1.75 for breakfast and $3 for lunch and dinner.
“It’s a variety of kids that are coming, it’s not just a set group,” said Sandra Schossow, the district’s food and nutrition director. “Anyone is allowed to come.”
More than 1,500 sites have opened across Arizona, according to the Arizona Department of Education – more than last year when more than 3 million meals were served. The sites will be open through the first week in August.
Urteaga said feeding children is an investment in the community. The son of immigrants from Mexico, he said the free meals he got at school carried him through the day – and propelled him into a career helping to feed other kids.
“Kids are our future, so the more we’re able to take care of them from an early age and make sure they have what they need to be successful, Arizona is set up for success as well,” Urteaga said.
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