|A few local mothers beat the crowd and sit with their snacking toddlers on picnic benches at Castro Elementary School. Soon, as summer school classes let out for the day, the gym is hit with "controlled chaos" as nearly 350 kids queue up to grab apples, milk and pizza slices before taking over the tables.
Castro has become a neighborhood hangout over the summer, ever since the Mountain View Whisman Elementary School District started offering free meals for children here about five years ago. During the summer, as part of the federal Seamless Summer Feeding Program, anyone under 18 is able to take advantage of free breakfast and lunch at Castro, or free brunch at Crittenden Middle School.
A mix of summer school students and other children from the community show up regularly for the free food. Doors open at around 11:30, when moms show up to feed their kids. Summer school students then pour in after their classes.
"Most of the people in the neighborhood know about it," said parent Rafaela Bena as her son eats cheese pizza. "I come because he loves the pizza, and everyday he wants the pizza."
The district qualifies for this federal program since more than 50 percent of its students can receive -- due to their low-income status -- government-funded free or reduced-price lunches during the school year. Unlike during the academic year, over the summer students do not need to provide paperwork or proof of their parents' income to receive free lunches.
"They want to make sure 'free' and 'reduced' kids not in summer school can come eat," said Sophia Zalot, food service manager.
Approximately 52 percent of district students participate in the free and reduced food programs, with over 70 percent of Castro's student body qualifying, according to Gail Burke, director of food services. A family of three earning around $32,000 a year qualifies, allowing that family's child to buy a reduced lunch for about 40 cents.
Waiting in the long line outside with his friends, incoming fourth grader Leka Tomlataia says he comes every day because the food is even better than what he eats at home.
"Here, we eat pizza and chocolate milk," he said. "It is pretty good."
The food service employees say they have noticed an increase in students at the summer lunch programs this year with the economy not doing as well, and expect more students to receive free and reduced lunches during the school year.
While they served about 280 lunches last year, there are now around 350 people coming for free summer meals, and Burke said she notices a rise among community members who are not in summer school. All told, there are nearly 400 summer school students this year, but only some of them stay for the meals.
"Our numbers will probably continue to grow," Zalot said. "It is hard to stretch the dollar."
The district changes its menu every weekday, offering turkey franks, sandwiches and burritos on Tuesdays, for example, and chicken and corn dogs or cheese pizzas on Fridays. The meals come with milk, vegetables and fruit each day.
"Our district is pretty good about making sure everyone has something," Zalot said.
By 12:30, almost 20 minutes after staff started serving meals, there is still a line outside the cafeteria. The community members have mostly left, and the dozen or so tables are completely taken over by students.
Angelique Visnicker, a soon-to-be second grader at Monta Loma, eats her cheese pizza and chats with a friend. She says the free food is the best part about summer school. As she starts on her fruit, her father, Otto Gomez, unsuccessfully tries to pull her away.
"She enjoys it here," he said.
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