In a sign of the changing times in South County, the Capistrano Unified School District for the first time is sponsoring the federally funded Summer Food Service Program for Children.
About 400 children in the poorest parts of San Juan Capistrano and San Clemente will be getting a free lunch each weekday this summer through the program, which was established in 1967.
"There's a large population of children in our country who are at risk for hunger," said Bill Caldwell, director of food services for the district. "What we've seen in the past is children will come back to school after the summer, and frankly, their health and ability to concentrate has taken two or three steps back.
"Even in our (South County) communities, there are a number of children whose needs go unmet during the summer," he said. "We want to see kids come back in September with less hunger and ready to participate in school."
Under the program, a sponsor in a designated area where 50% or more of the children would normally qualify for a free or reduced-price school lunch is eligible to serve the summer lunches, Caldwell said. In addition to school districts, nonprofit groups can also sponsor the program.
Nationwide, about 47 million students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches during the traditional school year, with about 4 million participating in the summer program, Caldwell said.
Until last year, other county school districts and nonprofit organizations, such as the Salvation Army, had not sponsored the summer lunch program for a decade, said Annette Jewel, food service outreach coordinator for the Orange County Community Development Council.
"Part of what we're doing is encouraging others to sponsor the program," Jewel said. "It is growing tremendously."
In the Capistrano Unified School District this summer, youths under the age of 19 who live within the boundaries of San Juan or Las Palmas Elementary schools qualify for a free lunch each weekday through Sept. 9, Caldwell said. No pre-enrollment is necessary.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is giving the district up to $2 per meal for the food and 19 cents per meal for administrative costs, Caldwell said.
The lunches are being served at two sites--San Juan Elementary School, at 31642 El Camino Real in San Juan Capistrano, and St. Clement's By the Sea Episcopal Church, at 202 Avenida Aragon in San Clemente.
Even before the summer session started at San Juan Elementary in mid-June, many children in the neighborhood started going to school each day for their free lunch.
By about 12:45 p.m. on a recent day, more than 200 children, many of them accompanied by their parents, settled down in an outdoor dining area with their box lunches of ham and cheese sandwiches, carrot sticks, apple juice and nonfat chocolate milk.
For San Juan Capistrano resident Cara Doromal, the free lunches came as "a blessing" for her two daughters, ages 7 and 2. With her husband out of work and a third child on the way, Doromal, 35, said she wasn't sure what was going to happen to the family this summer.
"It's just really tough now," she said. "Things can really turn around fast."
This summer, 11 sponsors, including school districts in Anaheim, Fullerton, Orange and Santa Ana, are serving lunch at 47 sites, Jewel said.