Andres Candelas, 11, flanked by two of his younger brothers, sat eating lunch at a picnic table at an otherwise quiet San Luis Obispo elementary school.
With school out for summer and most districts unable to provide summer school because of drastic budget cuts, many youths who would typically eat free lunch at school no longer have that option.
A growing program, dubbed Lovin’ Lunchbox, is hoping to fill that need by providing free lunches Monday through Friday at school sites and other central locations in cities throughout San Luis Obispo County.
Any youth, up to age 18, rich or poor, with an adult or solo, is welcome. “I like how they give us healthy snacks,” Candelas said. “That is what keeps me in shape.”
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He walked there with his grandma, Sara Elias, who was visiting from Mexico.
Elias said the program is a good one because the food is nutritious, adding that such programs are scarce where she lives in San Pedro Piedragorda, Zacatecas.
The program, administered by the Food Bank with federal funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was first piloted four years ago and has been at a handful of sites in the North County in recent years.
This year the lunch program has expanded to 15 sites countywide. It is the first time that San Luis Coastal Unified School District partnered with the program.
“Kids can be there two minutes or stay the whole time,” said Melissa Musgrave, the district’s family resource coordinator.
Musgrave said that each of the four sites coordinated by the district is now serving as many as 50 lunches each day. She expects that number to grow as word about the program spreads.
In San Luis Obispo County, there are 16,000 youths who qualify for free or reduced school lunches.
Wendy Lewis, the Food Bank’s chief operations officer, said the free lunch sites are located in areas with a higher concentration of students who qualify for the school lunch program.
“We want to make sure we are reaching as many kids as possible,” Lewis said. “Fewer and fewer kids are in summer programs and we worry about the gaps when school is not in session.”
Robin King first heard about the program in a parent participation class. She brings her son Gannon, 3, each day to socialize.
“We come eat and play,” King said. “It is our field trip for the day.”
The free lunch program runs through mid-August. For a full list of where the lunches are provided, visit http://slofoodbank.org or call 238-4664.