Under one of the shaded pavilions at General Franklin E Miles Park, Donna DeMarco stands behind the grill serving up chicken sandwiches, green chile cheeseburgers and hot dogs to hungry youngsters and accompanying adults. Sides include juice or chocolate milk, carrots, fruit and chips. The meals are free for children ages one to 18 and costs $3.75 for adults as part of the Santa Fe Public School's Summer Nutrition Program.
"We never know how many kids may be missing out on nutrition when not in school. That's what makes this program so important," says DeMarco as she hands over a steaming chicken sandwich to a little girl. "This makes it so that no kid is going without. This program makes it so there's somewhere where the community can come and get their kids a free meal, no questions asked."
This Friday participants at the park include students from the summer program at Kha'p'o Community School in Santa Ana Pueblo. Kha'p'o's Wellness Coordinator, Marie John, tells SFR the free lunch programs in Santa Fe and Los Alamos make it easier to take the kids on field trips. Most of her students, she says, are on the free lunch programs during the school year, and continue to depend on the Pueblo's summer programs to meet their nutritional needs.
This is the case for hundreds of students in the Santa Fe Public Schools as well. For many, the free lunch program provides the only meals they can reliably depend on during the week.
Towards the far end of the outdoor pavilion, Elizabeth Jackson sits at a table with her five children. Her youngest is 2 and her oldest is 11. She says the free meals in school were a saving grace for her family over the winter. Only a few weeks after her husband left the country to fulfill visa requirements, Jackson was held up at gunpoint at her job at the Allsups on Highway 14. The trauma of the incident left her with serious PTSD and she was unable to keep her job.
"We were really struggling at that time," she says. "We're a big family and I don't know how I would have been able to make it without the kids getting lunch at school. Its great that they continue it in the park over the summer too."
Another woman, Lara Curtis, and her daughter, Abby Roberts, say they have come every day since the program started on June 4, and came every day last summer as well.
"What I like about coming here is its bringing people together and having a good time," Abby tells SFR.
Yet the summer lunch program is not able to reach all of the students who depend on the free meals during the school year. SFPS Director of Student Nutrition Services Elizabeth Cull tells SFR that they serve around 8,300 meals during the year, and only 2,000 a day over the summer. She says, it may be a transportation issue. Still, for many the program is essential.
Lunch will be served at Franklin Miles Park (1027 Camino Carlos Rey) until July 4. Free lunches and breakfasts are also served at all Santa Fe Public Schools that is open for summer programming, and children do not need to be enrolled in a school program to receive a meal. At some locations the service will run until the end of July. A schedule can be found here.