If you're 18 or younger, you can pick up a free lunch in Lodi, regardless of your family's income. Typically reserved for those who receive free and reduced price lunch during the school year, these government-funded summer meal programs are open to all under 18.
That's applauded by advocates for youths and the needy, but raises ire among taxpayers.
"There's no such thing as a free lunch, unless it's at the expense of taxpayers. Even if it's just happening in one district, it's one too many," said Kris Vosburgh, executive director of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayer Association.
"We're going into additional national debt, and we're giving way free meals to people within their means. It's just absolute lunacy," he said.
Statewide, $14 million in federal funds goes toward the summer meals programs per year, according to Phyllis Bramson-Paul, director of the state office of education's nutrition services division. Local figures were unavailable.
While the USDA program is geared toward students who qualify for free and reduced price lunch during the school year, anyone can bring their child for a free meal in the summertime. If the site provides meals in the area of a schoolor child-based organization where at least 50 percent qualify, then every child coming to that site can get a meal for free, according to state officials.
The taxpayer-funded program reimburses agencies for providing nutritious meals while school is not in session.
With the help of cities and civic groups, state officials have set up alternative food programs that have helped buffer the loss of meals typically provided during summer school. Lodi Unified School District canceled summer school this year to save money, so the district teamed up with the city of Lodi Parks and Recreation Department to serve meals at Hale Park and Washington School.
Since the neighborhoods where the sites are located are of lower-income, it was open to all students under the age of 18 who live in the area. It fed about 200 students a day during its one-month duration, according the district's food services program. It ended July 2.
The Lodi Boys and Girls Club and local Head Start organization have partnered for a similar program that will run through the end of the month. They have been serving between 70 and 80 meals each day since mid-June, according to Wiqar Shah, who oversees the program available to anyone under the age of 18.
"Sometimes we get students who just run in and grab lunch and go," he said, adding that not all of the participants attend Boys and Girls Club programs.
The organization has worked with HeadStart program for the past three years. That organization is reimbursed by the federal government.
"The parents are just happy that they don't have to worry about getting them lunch. Most of our children are low-income, so they don't always get meals, and the parents love (the free lunches)," Shah said.
'Not free money'
Joe Baxter, of Lodi, takes issue with his taxes paying for free meals for people just because the money is there.
He walked past Washington School each morning and started to wonder why people were being served fresh fruit and corn dogs free of charge. When he asked, he was told it wasn't from Lodi Unified funding, but grant money.
"Grant money is not free money. Government money comes from your back pocket," he said, adding that he's never taken handouts.
"There are programs for people who are needy, and I've never been against a program for people who are hungry. I'm definitely against programs 'just because,' or for those who have learned to milk the system," he said.
In 2008-09, California served a record 794.3 million meals during the school year — 23.7 million more than the year before.
But that number typically drops during the summer, despite the availability at more sites each year.
"I don't think anybody wants to have their taxes raised to pay for lunch for a middle-class child," Vosburgh said. "If it's a program to help, there needs to be a means of testing. If it's families that are out of work and can't afford food, that's a different discussion."
He said he was flabbergasted and did some research, only to find that the program is available for all children during the summer.
In Lodi, the meals served by the school district in conjunction with the city were prepared at Millswood Middle School and transported, pre-packaged, to the sites. A paid district employee oversaw the food safety aspect of distribution while parks and recreation volunteers helped watch over the children.
"When you're talking a free lunch for anyone, people should be allowed to keep their taxes and make their own lunch," Vosburgh said. "It's costing real people real dollars to pay for this program."
Sarah Hersh, communications director for Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Pleasanton, said it is important during these tough economic times to make sure that the children of families who are struggling have access to nutritious meals.
"However, the congressman wants to ensure that our resources are used effectively. Programs should be carefully scrutinized to ensure that the taxpayers' money is used wisely. He encourages any abuses of the system to be brought to his attention and these will not be tolerated," Hersh said.
Galt children, too, received both breakfast and lunch at Marengo Ranch Elementary School through the end of June. It was open to anyone under the age of 18. The district served about 125 breakfasts and 150 lunches per day, according to Superintendent Karen Schauer.
The program was sponsored by the State Migrant Education program and coordinated with the district's extended year special education program located at this school site.
"These programs provide summer support for school district students who may have challenges with nutritious meals due to economic challenges," Schauer said, adding that approximately 60 percent of the district's students receive free or reduced lunches during the school year.
$357 million allocated
Meals must follow a specified meal plan that includes milk, fruits, vegetables or juice; grain products such as cereal or muffins; and meat or a meat alternative. To be reimbursed for their expenses, sponsoring programs must follow a regimented USDA menu.
The program was first created as part of a larger pilot program in 1968 and became a separate program in 1975, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees it.
In larger cities, there are dozens of sites. Last year, for example, the San Diego Unified School District's free summer lunch program served 250,000 meals. Five years earlier, when the program started, there were only 17,000 meals served.
Twenty-three of the more than 50 lunch locations this year in San Diego are in city parks. Last year, each park hosted a barbecue where parents could eat with their kids for $2 per adult.
Like Vosburgh, Baxter doesn't begrudge those who are needy, but takes issue with feeding all children just because the money is available.
"If people are hungry, feed them. Don't feed them 'just because,'" he said. "These programs are what got us into the mess we're into, this sense of entitlement. When I was raising a family, I worked two, sometimes three jobs, just to make ends meet."
How to get free lunch
The Lodi Boys and Girls Club, 275 E. Poplar St., will offer free lunch daily from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. through the end of July. It is sponsored by the Head Start Child Development Council and open to anyone 18 or younger.
For a complete list of sites in San Joaquin County, visit www.cde.ca.gov/ ds/sh/sn/sfs201039.asp.
— News-Sentinel staff.