At 11:30 a.m. on a recent summer day, half a dozen children were growing impatient as they waited for lunch. Jaime Douglas, 10, pounded on the Salvation Army door.
"Not yet," volunteer Gwen Stewart told them. "Twelve o'clock."
For Douglas and hundreds of other children from low-income families, the agency's free lunches replace state-funded school lunch programs that operate from September through June.
By 1 p.m., more than 110 children had swarmed through the makeshift cafeteria, eating what would be, for most, the day's main meal. There was no charge for the lunch of fruit cocktail, French bread and shepherd's pie--a mixture of hamburger, potatoes and corn.
"A lot of people find that with their children home from school, their food bills are going up," said Capt. Gayle Miga of the Worcester Salvation Army, which served more than 250 lunches the same day.
The state Education Department reimburses public and private agencies about $2 per meal served during school vacations. A tally hasn't been made of the number of children who participate in the program.
Mary Jo Cutler, director of the state's bureau of school nutrition services, said more than 184,000 Massachusetts youngsters requested free school lunches in 1991, up nearly 18% from 1990.
Other organizations offering summer lunch programs in Massachusetts include YMCAs, a housing authority and some public schools.
Salvation Army officials say similar programs are provided across the country. The programs vary to comply with state laws; there is no nationally coordinated program.
"We might not think it's the best meal in the world, we might want a chef's salad, but kids love it," said Capt. Phillip Engle.
Parents accompanying their children into the Brockton lunchroom aren't eligible for the state-funded meals. The Salvation Army provides them with sandwiches and snacks from its own pantry.
"We've been averaging 30 parents a day," Engle said.
The Brockton Salvation Army has offered lunches for several years. This year, Engle said, organizers are seeing more youngsters, a reflection of the depressed economy in this industrial city of nearly 100,000 people about 40 miles south of Boston.
Many are from a large public-housing project down the street, and a growing number speak only Spanish. For that reason, the Salvation Army hired two translators.