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VENTURA : U.S. Serves Up Free Lunches to Needy Children

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Whoever said there is no free lunch never took advantage of a federal program aimed at feeding hungry children.

The Ventura Unified School District is feeding more than 500 kids a day at eight locations in June and July as part of a Summer Lunch Program subsidized by the federal government.

“Some kids get to go to summer school, but not all of them do,” said Noreen Heidmann, a food services assistant at the school district.

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“This takes the place of school lunches,” she said. “There’s no secret charge in here. It’s a free lunch, courtesy of Uncle Sam.”

At the Westside Community Center last week, more than 50 children dined on smoked turkey and cheese sandwiches, veggie sticks, a fruit cup and milk. The only requirement is that the children must be able to serve themselves.

“By law we can’t ask them how old they are,” said Paula Taylor, site supervisor at the west Ventura club. “So, if they can walk on their own, they get lunch.”

Pierpont elementary student Christina Trujillo said she eats the meals almost daily. “I’d be eating at home if I wasn’t here,” said Christina, 9. “I like it.”

Classmate Shea Cofield said lunch is just one of many activities they do at the center.

“We play, we do arts and crafts, then we have lunch and do more fun stuff,” said Shea, also 9. “It’s a nice vacation from school.”

Roberta Payan, an administrator at the Westside center, said many of the youngsters would go hungry without the government subsidy.

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“One of the goals of the school district is to make sure these children have consistent nutrition,” Payan said. “A lot of times during school breaks, they’re not provided a regular meal.”

Taylor said no mixing or substitutions are allowed.

“They must take a milk and they must take a full meal,” she said, dishing out another sack lunch to a hungry child. “That way the government reimburses us.”

The Summer Lunch Program is offered at eight sites in Ventura, Oxnard and Moorpark. But Heidmann said the school district wants to expand the program and is looking for other groups to distribute lunches next summer.

“Next year I hope we can get some more, all the areas where there are boys and girls clubs,” she said. “Those clubs are very special because they don’t just go grab a lunch, they can go there and have fun.”

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