A hot lunch of orange chicken, sesame noodles and orange slices must’ve hit the spot Tuesday, as some of 260 students enjoying the meal went back to the kitchen at Monroe Elementary School for a second helping.
The free food readily devoured by hungry students was offered through the Santa Barbara Unified School District's Summer Food Service Program, which served more than 50,000 children last summer.
This summer marks the first time the program will offer meals at Monroe Elementary, and the inaugural year it will serve six sites instead of four since the launch five years ago.
Young smiling customers seemed to approve of the change.
The district’s food program kicked off Monday to provide nutritious, healthy meals at breakfast and lunch at no cost to children through Aug. 6, minus July 4 and Aug. 1.
Five locations will serve lunch from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday, including the playground area of Franklin Elementary School, Monroe Elementary School's cafeteria, La Cumbre Junior High, the Westside Neighborhood Center and Parque de los Niños — the last two served via Mobile Café.
Starting next Monday, this year’s program will add a sixth location at Bohnett Park on San Andres Street, aiming to serve 80,000 students, according to food services director Nancy Weiss.
All locations except Parque de Los Ninos offer breakfast from 8 to 9 a.m, with adults able to buy breakfast for $3 and lunch for $4.
A quiet hum fell over the Monroe cafeteria Tuesday as students ate, a much lower noise level than during the school year.
“I think it’s the whole wheat pasta, personally,” Weiss said, smiling.
She said the program — using mostly local food made from scratch — serves as a nutritional gap during the summer, when 2,000 meals will be distributed daily.
Children are already at many of the sites during the summer anyway, since Santa Barbara Parks & Recreation hosts camps at the schools.
“People just don’t think it’s happening in Santa Barbara,” Weiss said of children going hungry. “I see it every day. I think it’s going to be a successful summer.”
A similar free healthy food program is being offered at lunchtime to children age 18 or younger at the Santa Barbara Central Library, funded by the Santa Barbara Public Library System and the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County.
The “Picnic in the Park” program runs Wednesdays from 11 a.m. to noon through Aug. 20.