George Hernandez says he doesn't miss school during summer vacation, but he does miss school lunches.
"I miss pizza the most, pizza and hot dogs," George said.
Since school let out three weeks ago, the 10-year-old resident of the Rancho San Pedro housing project said he has been munching on apples, candy bars and Popsicles in place of the hot noontime meals he got at San Pedro's Barton Hill Elementary School.
But on Monday, George skipped past the ice cream truck and headed toward the Rancho San Pedro recreation center for a nutritionally balanced meal of sandwiches, apple sauce, trail mix, fruit, juice and chocolate milk.
The hearty lunch is provided through a federally financed summer program aimed at children who might otherwise go without a balanced noontime meal. Almost 9,000 such meals will be served every weekday through Aug. 29 at Los Angeles-area parks and recreation centers, including spots in Gardena, Torrance, Wilmington, Harbor City and San Pedro.
"I feel so much better and stronger after a meal like this," George said, wiping mustard from his cheek.
"If I weren't eating this lunch I probably would have just grabbed something little to eat until dinner time," said George, whose mother works during the day. "This program is good because now my family knows I eat a good lunch every day instead of eating junky food."
The summer lunch programs, which are sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, serve children under 18 in primarily low- to middle-income neighborhoods. No proof of income is required, but the children are not allowed to share their lunches with their parents or friends over 18.
"Unfortunately, this is the only balanced meal some of these children will eat all day long," said Jeri Rodin, Rancho San Pedro's recreation director and supervisor of the lunch program there for the past five years.
"It's not like they don't eat lunch during the summer; it's just that they eat all the wrong things.
The summer lunch program, which starts about three weeks after most public schools let out, is timed to start with public summer school programs. "It's really a shame we can't start serving lunches the day school gets out," Rodin said.
"In the two or three weeks between the time school lets out and the time this program starts I watch the kids at the park eating candy or chips because their parents are at work and can't monitor their lunches."
Once the program does start, children of all sizes and colors line up outside the recreation center 5 to 10 minutes before lunch is served. Occasionally a parent or someone obviously older than 18 tries to slip through the line for a boxed meal, and it is usually the children themselves who remind the intruders of the rules.
Inside the center, it's like any school lunchroom. Children trade oranges for applesauce and grapefruit juice for chocolate milk. Food is rarely wasted, and the children, who seem to truly appreciate the meals, jeer at friends who leave behind half-eaten oranges and bread crusts.
"I don't like seeing people waste their food because they'll get hungry later on and wish they had eaten it," said Elias Carbajal through a mouthful of corned beef on wheat bread. "It's not cool to waste food."
Untouched food is put in a so-called "goodie box" for children to snack on later in the day. "Children can come over to the center and grab an orange or a cold juice while they are playing at the park," Rodin said. "They are so much happier knowing they won't go hungry until supper."
Though the Rancho San Pedro lunch program started off slow this week with an average of 60 children a day, Rodin expects to be serving up to 200 lunches daily by August.
Indeed, word of a free lunch does spread fast among Rancho San Pedro's mostly low-income families. At Monday's meal, several children gobbled up their lunches at the recreation center and rushed off to the adjacent apartments to tell friends and siblings about the feast. And parents, who are not allowed in the center while lunch is being served, beckoned neighbors while they waited for their children to finish eating.
"It's really nice to know that my babies are eating a good lunch every day of the week," said Carolyn Hicks as she wiped the hands of her two preschool children. "It gives them a chance to be around other children and make friends."
One of the most important things about the lunch program is that it makes the children realize the importance of a balanced meal, Rodin said. "They see how much better they feel after eating a good lunch instead of a candy bar and it might teach them to continue on with these kinds of good eating habits when they get out of school and have their own children."
Here are the locations and times of free summer lunch programs in the South Bay:
Gardena: St. Andrews Recreation Center, 8701 St. Andrews Place, 12:20 p.m.
Harbor City: Harbor City Recreation Center, 24901 Frampton Ave., noon.
San Pedro: Fred Roberts Recreation Center, 4700 Honduras Ave., noon; Leland Recreation Center, 863 S. Herbert Ave., 12:30 p.m.; Peck Park, 560 N. Western Ave., 12:20 p.m.; Rancho San Pedro Recreation Center, 275 West 1st St., 12:45 p.m.
Torrance: Normandie Recreation Center, 22400 South Halldale Ave., noon.
Wilmington: Banning Recreation Center, 1331 Eubank St., noon; Green Meadows Recreation Center, 431 East 89th St., noon; Mount Carmel Recreation Center, 7011 S. Hoover St., 1 p.m.; Wilmington Recreation Center, 325 Neptune Ave., noon.