LONG WALK TO A FREE LUNCH

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When 12-year-old Cameron Gonzalez reported for summer school last Monday, he discovered that if he wants to take advantage of the federal free breakfast or lunch program for which he is eligible, he’ll have to walk half a mile. His school, I.S. 119 in Glendale, Queens, no longer serves summer meals.

Cameron and his 63 summer schoolmates are some of the thousands of low-income public school students who will have to travel longer distances to get the free meal for which the feds fund the city each summer.

As part of the city’s final budget deal, it was decided that the city Department of Education would cut the number of schools serving free meals this summer from 800 to 600. Only schools with more than 200 students in attendance will provide breakfasts and lunches. Staffing costs make it imprudent to keep every cafeteria open, said Department of Education spokesperson Kevin Ortiz. Under the new configuration, he said, “Kids who are in summer school or kids that aren’t can walk into one of these sites and get breakfast and lunch.”

But parents and nutrition advocacy groups are concerned. “They said 10 blocks, but it’s difficult in the heat of the day,” said Carmen Santana, Cameron’s mother.

Under the National Free School Lunch Program, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reimburses the city $1.35 for each free breakfast and $2.35 for lunch. Since it is up to cities to put the money up initially, and the feds cover very few administrative costs, tight budgets are forcing school districts to cut back.

“In the states nationwide and at the city level, there is a real budget problem,” said USDA spokesperson Jane Francis.

Last year, the city fed nearly 200,000 children in July and 150,000 in August. This year, the reduction in cafeteria openings under the $20.4 million program could affect as many as 40,000 kids in July and 75,000 in August, estimates the Community Food Resource Center, an advocacy group.

Said Santana, “Whoever came up with these cuts doesn’t have kids in public school or doesn’t have a need to feed their children.”