AURORA | When you’re struggling, little things can be amazing. Like a ham sandwich.
That’s what 8-year-old Miriam Castellanos dubbed her sliced ham on a whole grain bun and yellow cheese while sitting on a picnic bench just outside the gates of the Del Mar Family Aquatic Center.
Her mother, Martha, said she was just glad to see her daughter eating lettuce along with the ham. The pair moved to Aurora from Arvada a year ago and are still adjusting to the neighborhood, Martha said.
Martha and Miriam are like a growing number of people in Aurora who need and receive free meals at schools, and now, even through the city.
The lunch is simple: a sandwich, an apple or grapes and low-fat milk. But for Martha, it’s one more meal she doesn’t have to worry about while school is out.
“I lost my job, and then I had to rent my condo. We both are living in a rented room now,” she said. “Miriam comes to swimming lessons, and we stay until 2 p.m. because we know they will have the lunch, and then we go home.”
Miriam got the lunch. As an adult, Martha doesn’t qualify.
It’s the first time the City of Aurora has launched a free summer meal program for youth 18 and younger, said Jenna Katsaros, a special projects coordinator with the city.
At Aurora Public Schools, 71 percent of students — about 28,000 — are eligible for free or reduced-cost meals during the year, but the school district’s summer food program only runs through the end of June.
“That leaves the whole month of July into August when school starts back up,” Katsaros said. That’s how the city qualified for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s summer meal program to serve the free lunches and snacks during the week at Del Mar and Parklane parks, both in north Aurora.
The city’s program started in late May and runs every weekday through Aug. 7. It’s open to anyone age 18 and under. No registration or sign-up is required. Kids can just come and eat, Katsaros said. As required by the USDA, lunch runs every weekday from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m., and snacks are served from 4 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.
The meals are reimbursed by the USDA under the program, meaning the city only has to cover administrative costs.
Both sites have outdoor pools that see a lot of kids during the day, Katsaros said for why the city picked the two sites.
Katsaros said since the program began, staff have served 75 lunches a day at each site.
“I think by July, we’ll be up to serving at least 100 snacks a day. The word is getting out,” she added. She said the kids were especially crazy about the Zac Attack Bars. A healthy take on the Fig Newton, made with flax flour, all natural jam, and packed with omega-3 fatty acids.
Katsaros said the families gathered at picnic tables outside of the newly revamped Del Mar Park on a Friday in June were required to eat their meals on site.
“They can go to the park or the pool or the playground. But they can’t just get a meal and bring it to the car. The USDA wants to make sure the meals go to kids,” she said.
Nationally, more than 21 million children rely on free and reduced-price meals provided by the USDA’s National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs, but only 3.8 million participate in USDA’s summer meal programs.
Patti Moon, a spokeswoman for Aurora Public Schools, said in the month of May alone the school district served more than 5,000 breakfast meals and 7,000 lunch meals at a total of 39 locations.
Katsaros said the city was able to launch its summer meal program this year thanks to a $30,000 grant from the National League of Cities.
“It allowed us to hire a full-time employee to help administer the program,” she said. The grant also came with mentoring and support from the City and County of Denver.
“They’ve seen a lot of success with their USDA summer meal programs,” she said.
Aurora does have a few other summer foods sponsors, such as Food Bank of the Rockies, a nonprofit that serves free and reduced meals at area parks including the Expo Center, Hoffman Youth Center, Moorhead Recreation Center and the MLK Jr. Library.
But even the meals themselves can be a barrier, according to Katsaros.
“What we found was there was a lack of sites, there was a lack of quality meals, and a lot of the meals being served, kids were not eating,” she said.
According to research done by Katsaros and city staff on free food available to kids during the summer, those meals were mostly shelf-stable, which meant they were canned or packaged.
Katsaros said as a result, children were taking one or two items such as crackers or pretzels with dipping cheese and discarding the rest.
The concept of throwing away food and at the same time being hungry sounds strange at first. But studies have shown that kids who are food insecure — who don’t know where their next meal is coming from — have more negative associations with healthy foods than kids who have better access them.
A 2009 study published in the American Journal of Public Health found youth who often did not have enough to eat or reported that they experienced hunger “some months” also reported eating more fast food than those who had regular access to healthy foods. Food-insecure youths also were more likely to perceive eating healthfully as inconvenient and that healthy food did not taste good, the study said.
Katsaros also pointed out that kids are kids, and they simply won’t eat something if it doesn’t appeal to them.
“The fact is, fresh strawberries just taste better than canned pears,” she said.
She said the city contracted specifically with Revolution Foods to serve fresh food at the two pilot sites to avoid meals that included items such as a cup of vegetables suspended in water. The city even received a $20,000 grant through the National Parks and Recreation Association to afford the necessary refrigeration equipment.
“Also with the grant, we’re obligated to do nutrition literacy programming. We want kids to make connection on how this food is helping their bodies grow,” she said.
Another issue Katsaros saw with federally funded sumer food programs in Aurora was a lack of access for children who lived in apartments and mobile homes. She found they either had issues getting to the available food sites, or they were not allowed to go by their parents.
Along with the city’s pilot program, Aurora also expanded its mobile food programs this year.
This year, Equal Heart, a nonprofit based in Texas, now delivers breakfast and lunch to 10 apartment and condo units, and two mobile home communities in the city.