Pasadena was once recognized for the Rose Bowl and parade. Now it can add charity to that list.
Under a program called Fuel Up For Summer Fun, the Pasadena Unified School District (PUSD) has been offering children 18 years old and younger free summer meals, delivering high-nutrition foods two times a day from mid-June to August at local schools, parks, and community centers. The applaudable tradition continues this year.
I spoke with Clementina Aroyan, who has been working as Food Service Assistant for the Pasadena school district for 25 years and oversees food operations at Altadena Elementary School, one of this year’s participating locations. She eagerly showed me to the kitchen, where there were trays of warm pizza, fresh oranges, and packs of baby carrots on the table.
“You have to be professional and certified to do this, and you have to work well with kids”, Ms. Aroyan said as she handed out a plastic fork to a child that walked in. She knew him by his name.
Each day this summer, Ms. Aroyan spends five hours preparing and handing out food that arrives from Pasadena High School. The meals are cooked right before they are served and specifically designed to give children plenty of fiber, vitamins, and protein. For example, breakfast might include cereal, a peach, and juice; lunch might be bean burrito, edamame, and jicama sticks; and for those who haven’t enough, there’s cinnamon graham crackers for a snack.
Ms. Aroyan explained that the summer feeding program is funded by the federal government and intended to provide children nutritious foods–“fuel” them up to “learn, play, and grow.” That’s important when summer rolls along. As Pasadena Unified wrote on its website: When school meals are not available and families have limited budgets, children will often miss wholesome meals. The free summer meal program fills that gap and helps kids continue their daily activities during summer vacation.
Pasadena’s school district has a highly effective routine to make ensure there’s adequate resource to run the meal program. I asked Ms. Aroyan if they are ever short-staffed and she answered, “No.” She alone manages the elementary school’s kitchen from breakfast to lunch. Food staff are properly trained to conduct food services efficiently, she explained, so it’s not rare to see only one or two people preparing and passing out the food. And to make sure meals are absolutely safe for kids, the program also does not accept volunteers or food donations.
“They always have enough food,” Ms. Aroyan stated confidently. The district conducts enough assessments each year to know approximately how much food is needed at each location. At Altadena Elementary, the kitchen keeps at least one week’s supply of food. For community sites like parks and churches, food trucks are used to deliver the needed food supply in insulated containers every day, heated and ready to be served.
Similar programs across the country are helping to make sure kids get the proper nutrition they need during the summer months. The US Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Services funds many of them under its Seamless Summer Option/Summer Food Service Program, and local organizations like the City of Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks sponsors its own Free Summer Lunch Program for kids and teens as well.
One thing these programs could do, though, is provide more allergy-friendly alternatives. In Pasadena, there’s milk for breakfast every day, but Ms. Aroyan (who happens to be lactose-intolerant herself) stated that there are a lot of children who are allergic to dairy and simply skip the milk. What they really need are healthy options like almond, coconut, or soya milk, said Ms. Aroyan, “They need the calcium.”
The added plant-based options would benefit vegetarian and vegan families, too. There’s a back supply of bean burritos that Ms. Aroyan would heat up for young vegetarians if they asked, however, it’s really up to parents to inform school districts of their child’s allergies and dietary requirements in order to get more plant-based foods and drinks on next year’s menu.
Still, thanks to federal summer meal programs like this, children in many cities are getting the healthy meals they need to grow.
“I am happy to serve in this program,” said Ms. Aroyan.
Pasadena’s 2017 Fuel Up For Summer Fun will continue through August, when school starts up again.