Lead Story West Edition

Free park lunch program serves 4,000 meals a day

SOUTH LOS ANGELES — Summer can be a hard time for families on a tight budget. Not only are vacations a financial worry, but for some families, so is food.

Parents can’t count on their children eating meals at school and many times that means parents have to go hungry so their kids can eat.

The Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the state Department of Education and the Department of Public Health, is providing about 300,000 free snacks and lunches this summer at 48 county parks in 15 school districts.

There are also 1,539 sponsors that include several community action agencies, head start centers and boys and girls clubs.

Lunch and snacks are served between 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. The exact times change depending on location.

The parks taking part in the program serve areas within geographical borders where at least 50 percent of elementary, middle or high school students are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals.

One of the parks is Franklin D. Roosevelt Park in the Florence-Firestone area of South Los Angeles.

County employees who oversee the free summer lunch program at Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park in South Los Angeles are, from left, Veronica Cortez, recreation service leader; Charlotte Robinson-Perkins, recreation services supervisor; and Donna Fulbright, recreation services supervisor. (Photo by Jacqueline Fernandez)
County employees who oversee the free summer lunch program at Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park in South Los Angeles are, from left, Veronica Cortez, recreation service leader; Charlotte Robinson-Perkins, recreation services supervisor; and Donna Fulbright, recreation services supervisor. (Photo by Jacqueline Fernandez)

Every Monday through Friday from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. the park serves free lunch in the Community Room. Children up to 18 years of age are invited to join.

“This summer is going great,” said Donna Fulbright, recreation services supervisor for the county Department of Parks and Recreation. “We have four new county libraries that have joined us. We are averaging 4,000 meals a day and that’s our best so far.”

A county dietician reviews the menu to make sure everything is in compliance. It’s a daily meal plan that doesn’t contain too much sugar or sodium with everything measured for optimal nutrition.

“I’ve been coming since last year,” said Marina Rodriguez, a local resident. “I’m low income and my husband lost his job. I babysit for my daughter and I bring three of my grandkids to the park.

“I come an hour before so they can play and get hungry and I can even take them to the pool. It’s great. It really helps me a lot. I save so much money and I know it’s healthy food. I can’t get this anywhere else,

Food waste is also minimized in the program. Each unit is provided with a “goodie box.” Food items a child doesn’t want can go in the box so other children have the opportunity to eat it. If there is still food leftover after the lunch hour, the box is put out again during snack time.

Veronica Cortez, a recreation service leader for the county, got her start volunteering at the summer lunch program.

“The parents are very grateful for the lunch,” Cortez said. “Some come every year and others have no idea and get excited when they find out about it. We accommodate kids with allergies as well. Parents just need to fill out a form with the child’s information.”

Hummus and pita chips are the new lunch items this summer. Most of the children weren’t familiar with those foods, but Cortez says the kids enjoy squeezing the hummus tube.

“The string cheese with the juice and cookies is another hit,” she said. “Also the pizza. They think it’s a Lunchables pizza, so they have fun spraying the sauce. Those are their favorite meals.”

The 2016 free Summer Food Service Program concludes Aug. 5. For information, visit www.fns.usda.gov/summerfoodrocks.