By Greg Mellen
Reina Castillo’s two children looked over the lunch selection. There were cheeseburger sliders, pretzel hot dogs, and chicken drumsticks with waffles. Farther down, a basket with apples and oranges, bags of carrots and cherries, yogurt, and granola. And finally, beverages: milk or apple juice.
As they sat in the shade of a canopy, Jacob Castillo, 7, dived into the yogurt, while his sister, Vanessa, enjoyed the chicken.
About 50 kids attended the free Lunch at the Library program on a recent Thursday afternoon, sponsored by the San Juan Capistrano library and Capistrano Unified School District.
The program, which offers free healthy meals to children, kicked off at the San Juan Capistrano Library, the only South Orange County library offering the program.
“It’s nice to provide this for the community, especially in the summer,” said Maria Ortiz, a food service lead at CUSD. “It’s always nice when the parents are working and nothing is available.”
According to the Lunch at the Library website, “Only 17 percent of California school children who receive free or reduced price lunches during the school year also receive free lunches during the summer. In 2018, nearly two million school children who were eligible for summer lunches did not get them.”
In addition to food, the program provides education and enrichment about nutrition and healthy habits.
“We try to get as much fruits and vegetables as we can,” Ortiz said, noting that the bags of carrots were a popular addition.
The Orange County program started in Garden Grove in 2016 and has expanded to include libraries in Costa Mesa, El Toro and San Juan Capistrano.
This year, the Capistrano program, which runs six weeks from Monday through Thursday, returned to the library for the first time since the pandemic. Ortiz said the program, eligible to children ages 18 and younger, has been picking up steam as word gets out. She says as many as 72 kids have attended, and the goal is to serve 2,400 meals overall.
Last year, although the library program was not available in San Juan Capistrano, more than 250,000 children statewide were able to receive meals through the grant-supported program.
Generally, the summer menu is the same as the menu in elementary schools when school is in session, but Ortiz said CUSD Chef Joana Flor, “tries to do something special” with the summer menu. Over the course of the six weeks the hope is to provide new and interesting meals and menus. During a recent week, for example, kids were treated to homemade pickles, agua fresca de pepino (cucumber water), and fresh strawberries to recognize California’s Farm to Summer Celebration Week.
A recent Thursday event featured a Farm Stand Tasting with strawberries delivered by Rosewood Farms of Fountain Valley. In addition to the cut strawberries, there were recipes for the homemade pickles, cucumber water, and strawberry salad that kids enjoyed earlier in the week. Families also learned the health benefits of strawberries and cucumbers.
Nearby, Kris Brown and her daughter Noa, 6, and twins Max and Ly, 3, were there for the Farm Stand Tasting. Noa even dressed for the occasion with a strawberry-print dress. Brown described her family as “library people,” who come by regularly.
“The food program is great,” she said. “It’s just another thing to look forward to.”
Food experts say that eating fruit and veggies rather than high-calorie, low-nutrient foods is essential to maintaining a healthy weight and reducing the risk of many diseases.
Saidy Valdez, branch manager of the San Juan Capistrano Library, says the midday meals are helping bring traffic to the library. After the pandemic, the library remained closed for more than a year while it underwent renovations. In addition to the lunches, the library has been playing host to an array of associated events and activities such as story time, crafts, bubbles, magic shows, and more.
“I think the summer reading program and the lunches have helped,” Valdez said. “I think people are definitely coming back to the library.”
“Oh, my gosh, I love it,” said Brown, a San Juan Capistrano resident. “All of this, it blows my mind, all that’s available to the kids. I think it is fulfilling to get them excited and see the library coming to life.”
As Ortiz enjoyed the sun breaking through the morning clouds she said, “It’s a joy coming out and seeing the community.”
Free lunch meals are available to all children 18 and under at the San Juan Capistrano Library this summer. The program runs Monday to Thursday from noon to 1 p.m. June 12 through July 20. For more information, visit ocpl.org/libraries/san-juan-capistrano or follow CapoFood on Instagram.