When María Elena García rushes off to work at a Mexican restaurant, she takes comfort in knowing that her two children, ages 12 and 16, will get a healthy lunch at school.
But now that school is out, she worries about what they will eat.
"I know it is nothing good," said the MacArthur Park mother. "We don't have good food at home."
The summer months can be some of the most difficult for families that rely on federally subsidized school meals to provide an important part of their nutritional needs.
Now, many California school districts have eliminated summer programs in response to state financial cuts to education, reducing the times and places that needy students can receive free breakfasts, lunches and snacks.
Participation in federal summer meals programs for low-income children dropped 10% in California last year, despite an increase in eligibility due to the recession, according to a new report by California Food Policy Advocates.
A total of 481,339 California children received free meals at schools, parks, recreation centers and other sites in July 2009, more than 60,000 fewer than the previous year, the report said. That is just 21% of the number who receive subsidized meals during the school year.
"While legislators recognize that summer school cuts remove valuable academic enrichment, very few policy makers consider the nutritional impact of summer school reductions, which directly jeopardize the health and academic success of 1.9 million low-income students" who received free or reduced-price meals during the school year, said Matthew Sharp, a senior advocate at California Food Policy Advocates.
Participation in summer nutrition programs varied considerably between counties. In San Diego County, it increased 84% last summer, and in Los Angeles County it fell 27%, according to the report.
Officials at Los Angeles Unified Schools District, the state's largest, have again canceled summer school classes at elementary and middle schools this year. Only credit-recovery courses in core requirements will be offered at high schools.
But officials have set up alternative feeding and enrichment programs, said David Binkle, the district's deputy director of food services. By next week, free meals will be offered at 260 district schools, compared with 95 last July, he said. All children ages 1 to 18 may participate, regardless of whether they attend school.
At Los Angeles Elementary School in Harvard Heights, about 100 eager children lined up Tuesday to collect lunch trays after a morning of dance and exercise. On the menu: hamburgers on whole-wheat buns, baked potato wedges, orange slices and milk.
"It's greasy but it's delicious," pronounced 9-year-old Samantha Linares.
Samantha's mother gave her cereal and a peach for breakfast. But for some of her friends, the lunch was their first meal of the day.
"We should thank them," Samantha said somberly. "Otherwise we would be starving all day."
District officials expect to serve nearly 5 million meals this summer, nearly 10 times the number of last year, Binkle said. They have put up banners, placed ads on radio and television, and sent letters to parents to publicize the meal sites.
Other government agencies and nonprofits are also stepping in to help reach more children. The Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks will be offering lunches and snacks at 106 sites. California food pantries and other community organizations have also registered to provide subsidized meals.
Garcia's son, 16-year-old Kevin Gonzalez, said his parents never needed to send their children to summer school before. When the economy was better, his father, a painter, would take the family on holiday to Mexico. But these days, neither of his parents can get enough work.
Kevin said he will be attending remedial classes this summer, but his mother has not found a program for his 12-year-old sister, Ruby Gonzalez.
"There is always food at school," Kevin said. "It is not always good food. But it's always there. You don't have to go out looking for it. We miss that in the summer."