In an otherwise vacant Sharpstein Elementary, Jill Parcells and Jolene Queen are hard at work most days throughout the summer. At 8:30 a.m. on Monday, each was already a good two hours into the morning's work.
Parcells and Queen, who both oversee elementary school kitchens during the school year, were working against a tough deadline. Starting as early as 11 a.m., the hundreds of lunches they were busy assembling would be on their way to hundreds of hungry children.
"Today we're serving 447 lunches," Parcells said, as she and Queen worked to wrap turkey franks in whole grain buns within foil lined paper to keep warm.
Along with milk, fruit cups, a juice bar, and chips, the days menu would be dished up for area children through a component of the federal National Free Lunch Program.
Available through the school year to children who meet poverty guidelines, the federal lunch program brings similar balanced meals to communities in need during the summer. But the difference in the summer meals is that they are made available -- free -- to all children, not just those who meet guidelines.
In Walla Walla, the program is run by the city's Parks and Recreation department, through a partnership with Walla Walla Public Schools, which prepares the meals.
Since about mid-June, Parcells and Queen have been busy planning and preparing the hundreds of meals that go out to various sites throughout the city most days each week.
"I usually estimate 600 of what we're ordering because our numbers jump around all the time," Parcells said. This summer, the local program is averaging 500 lunches served in a single day, at a variety of sites within the community.
The women are also working within strict guidelines, that require each piece of the meal to be accounted for and ready for a child, or risk losing the reimbursement for each meal that the government provides.
"If any component of the meal is missing, it becomes disallowed," explained Pam Milleson, food services director for the School District. That means the district pays for the meal if there is not enough of one thing, like milk or a fruit cup, to make a complete lunch.
"So we're pretty precise," she said.
The food is stored and prepared at Sharpstein, where a large kitchen and central location simplifies the delivery to the assorted sites. When the lunches are ready, Parks and Recreation employees handle the pickup and delivery, and get the meals to waiting children.
Each day, children eat a variety of foods that cover key food groups. There is protein, fruits and vegetables and grains served throughout the week, along with some treats. The menu is varied each day for two weeks, then it starts again.
"We do the occasional cookies," Milleson said. "It entices kids to eat the good stuff."
The free summer lunches have been served up locally for several years. Milleson said last summer the program served well over 20,000 lunches, the most of any other summer to date. This summer, participation appears to be slightly lower than in past years.
Milleson said the program is a real positive for all children. She said she's aware of criticisms of school lunches as not being nutritious enough, but argues that any meal is about balance.
"There aren't really bad foods," she said. "It's all moderation."
Maria P. Gonzalez can be reached at email@example.com or 526-8317. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/schoolhousemissives.
FREE LUNCHES FOR CHILDREN
Free lunches are offered at the following sites and times to all children ages 1 to 18. Lunches must be eaten at the site, and any uneaten food must be given back or discarded to adhere to program guidelines. Lunches are being given out Monday through Friday on a first-come, first-served basis, through the listed dates and times:
Through Aug. 13, unless otherwise noted.
11 a.m. -- Washington Park
11:10 a.m. -- Fort Walla Walla Park (ends Aug. 6)
11:30 a.m. -- Wildwood Park, Jefferson Park
11:45 a.m. -- Eastgate Lions Park (no Friday lunch)
12 p.m. -- Pioneer Park, YMCA, Prescott Lions Hall (no Friday lunch), and Pioneer Middle School (ends July 29; no Friday lunch).
12:30 p.m. -- Blue Ridge Elementary (ends Aug. 12; no Friday lunch).
12:45 p.m. -- Farm Labor Homes
11:30 a.m. -- Green Park Elementary, Sharpstein Elementary (Aug. 2-12), Edison Elementary (Aug. 2-13)