The noisy chatter of almost 100 children filled the cafeteria of midtown's Jefferson Park Elementary School on a recent morning. They were a diverse, well-behaved bunch, sitting together in groups under the watchful eyes of a few adults.
But these kids weren't at school to learn. Instead, they were there for a free breakfast that included an egg-and-cheese burrito accompanied by orange juice and milk—including the tempting choice of chocolate milk.
"More people are using this (summer) meal benefit to help them make their household money go further," observes Pamela Palmo, director of food services for the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD).
Funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and administered through the Arizona Department of Education, the Summer Food Service Program has included TUSD as a local sponsor for more than 25 years.
Funding is provided on a reimbursement basis: a base amount of approximately $1.65 per breakfast and $2.85 for each lunch. Because of those limitations, Palmo says the financially challenged district has to be careful with its program expenses.
"We have to manage the program very wisely," she says, "so we can be reimbursed."
All children 18 and younger can receive a free breakfast and lunch during parts of the summer at almost 100 sites around town. Palmo says TUSD operates 79 of those sites; 59 are in schools, with the remainder at community facilities.
Palmo estimates the district will serve a total of 160,000 free meals this summer. While TUSD employs an aggressive outreach effort to achieve that large number, it still represents only a small fraction of Tucson's poor children.
The 2000 census showed more than 24 percent of the city's children live in poverty. Three years later, statistics for the entire Tucson metropolitan area revealed that more than 43,000 children reside in households which earned less than the federal poverty rate. A few years ago, U.S. Census Bureau figures showed that at least 25,000 children live in poverty within the city limits.
However, the Summer Food Service Program does help kids in need, explains Camila Lopez-Pryor, Jefferson Park's summer food services program manager. "We have between 75 and 110 children for breakfast, and 100 to 150 for lunch. Most of them are neighborhood kids from families who need assistance."
Lopez-Pryor, who also works at Jefferson Park while school is in session, says she's seeing the number of kids grow, possibly due to the community's stagnant economy. "A lot more children are coming to eat in the mornings, even during the school year," she says.
The food the children receive, Palmo and Lopez-Pryor agree, isn't the same stuff that was served a few decades ago—and that's a good thing. Summer Food Service Program sponsors like TUSD are provided with planning menus that specify food-component groups and portion sizes.
"It's a healthier format," Palmo says about this day's lunch at Jefferson Park, which included cheeseburgers, baked french fries, fruit and milk.
The summer program at Jefferson Park ends on July 2 to allow the school to prepare for the new school year that begins in August. Lopez-Pryor says the school distributes an information sheet about other food sources in Tucson to cover this period before school starts.
"Hopefully, in that time, they'll use the Community Food Bank," Palmo says.
The Food Bank is also involved with the summer food program. According to Kip Patterson, the child nutrition program coordinator for the agency, the agency serves about 300 children at breakfast and 700 at lunch each day at seven sites in rural Pima County.
The kids who use each site, Patterson indicates, have a lot to do with the type of facility it is. "At the high schools," he says of sites in Marana and Sahuarita, "it's high school kids for the most part. Elementary school children use the other sites."
Patterson says the number of children using these sites is about the same as last year, but he expects increases in 2010.
"Next summer, they'll continue to grow in Marana," Patterson predicts about the community, which has been hit hard by the economic downturn.
Another summer-food option available for children is a privately funded program operated by The Giving Tree, a faith-based organization. At five Tucson apartment complexes, this effort is serving 250 meals a day.
"We try to feed children first," says program manager William Parker, "but make sure any adults are fed also."
Parker believes The Giving Tree's project, which includes two meals a day, complements the federal government's Summer Food Service Program. "We try to catch kids who might miss a meal at school," he explains.
Like Patterson, Parker sees the need for free meals for children increasing over the next 12 months because of the community's deteriorating economic condition.
"I imagine there will be more kids next year," Parker suggests. "It's unfortunate, but I think so."
For more information, including a list of Summer Food Service Programs, visit www.ade.az.gov/health-safety/cnp/sfp, or call (800) 352-4558.