The people who have been flocking to Little People’s Park this summer are mainly teen-age boys who play with baseball gloves, young girls who cluster under the park’s lone sycamore tree, and toddlers who roll in on strollers pushed by their parents.
But shortly before noon, the little people leave the slides and the sparse park equipment to line up for lunches sponsored by the federal government.
Three years ago, there was no Summer Food Service Program in Orange County. But the recession and its job layoffs have taken a toll on the county, leaving thousands of children without proper nutrition, officials say.
This summer, record numbers of children are flocking to 62 sites from La Habra to San Clemente to receive the free meals.
One 11-year-old girl who came to Little People’s Park said she and her five siblings would have had to be satisfied with “chips and soda” for lunch had the free meals not been available.
Ellen Crummie, 28, who lives near the park, brings her two children to receive the meals five days a week. She also volunteers to serve meals to the approximately 100 children who gather at the park for the free lunch.
“We don’t have a lot of money,” Crummie said, “and during the summer my kids would have had to eat strictly peanut butter sandwiches. Now, I’ll be able to buy them school clothes.”
Orange County was probably not on the top of the list when Congress designed the lunch program about 30 years ago as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty.
Whether or not the program was needed here before, it certainly is needed now, officials say. The number of local lunch sites here has more than tripled from 19 in 1991 to 62 in 1993. This year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the program, allocated $1.5 million for the Orange County agencies that serve the meals.
The summer food program was created to ensure that low-income children would receive at least one nutritious meal a day when the National School Lunch Program, which offers free and reduced-price meals during the school year, is not operating, said Dee Amaden, spokeswoman for the USDA in California.
Typically the summer lunch program is sponsored by public or private schools, city or county park and recreation agencies or private, nonprofit community organizations, often in conjunction with an existing summer recreation or education program for children. The idea is to bring the food where children congregate.
Anyone age 18 and under--and anyone who is disabled--can get a free meal. There are no tickets to hand in or forms to fill out.
A typical meal, which must meet strict USDA nutrition requirements, includes a sandwich, a fruit, milk and a dessert item. Pizza is an overwhelming favorite among the children. In Orange County, most meals are prepared at school district kitchens and brought to the sites.
This year Orange County cities, school districts and churches applied for federal funds to run the program, citing the need among children in their communities. Most of the sites will remain open until the Labor Day weekend, which traditionally marks the beginning of the school term.
Annette Jewell, who coordinates the summer lunch program for the Community Development Council, the county’s anti-poverty agency, said this year the sites will serve about 385,000 meals, contrasted with 93,336 in 1991 and 244,000 in 1992.
“This program represents good nutrition to (many) children who would have gone the entire summer with poor nutrition or little food at all,” Jewell said. “We are only (too) happy to fill that need.”
Not everyone who qualifies for the programs takes advantage of them, though. The latest figures provided by the USDA show that of the 107,000 Orange County children who qualified for the free lunch program last year, only 6,810--or about 6%--received the free meals.
Barry Sackin, director of food services for the Anaheim Union High School District, said school officials attempted to “fill the tremendous need in our neighborhoods” by opening about a dozen sites this year. The number of meals served by the school district this summer is expected to increase fivefold over the 10,000 served when the district started its summer lunch program in 1991.
Sackin’s district intends to begin running year-round lunch programs at Ponderosa Park and in the Jeffrey-Lynne neighborhood.
“The kids need us,” Sackin said. “We have to be there for them.”
The Anaheim high school district operates the program at Little People’s Park, where one day last week about 100 children were sitting around picnic tables and on the grass to enjoy a meal that included hot dogs, fries, orange juice, chocolate milk and cookies.
Matt Burkert, who lives across the street from the park, brought his daughter, Chantal, a 3-year-old with curly blond hair.
“It’s a big help to know that you could come here and get good food for your kids,” said Burkert, 28, who works as a chauffeur. “This goes a long way to helping working people. And best of all, it’s free.”
Elizabeth Guerrero, 18, said she and her two younger sisters walk half an hour to the park each day to receive the free lunches. They are never disappointed, she said.
“It’s a good change from eating at home,” Guerrero said, noting that her family stretches limited funds to make ends meet. “We’re always very thankful for this food.”
A recent study by the Food Research Action Center in Washington found that about 5 million children under 12 years of age go hungry at some point each month. For them, free school lunches are a necessity, not a luxury. In Orange County, a recent survey by University of California researchers found that more than 50% of the 80,000 people who need emergency food from the county’s shelters and pantries were under 18 years of age. More than one-quarter of parents surveyed reported that they were forced to send their children to bed hungry some of the time.