Janice O'Donnell and Victoria Martinez are carefully constructing what look to be some delicious wrap sandwiches: whole wheat tortillas, ham and turkey slices, mozzarella, fresh spinach and a tomato vinaigrette.
Their efforts, however, appear to be largely in vain. Except for a trio of young girls who wander in to chat — and explain that they're going to Subway for lunch — the gym/cafeteria at Westside Community Center is desolate. And it's shortly before the lunch hour.
To O'Donnell and Martinez, the rows of empty chairs are something of a travesty. The food they're serving is free to any child between the ages of 1 and 18, and they know that there are plenty of kids on the west side whose parents are having a hard time filling the fridge. They wish there were some way to let those kids know that they can come to the center, at 1628 W. Bijou St., and get a free, healthy breakfast and lunch every weekday. No questions asked.
"We'd like to get the word out, because our numbers have been very few," O'Donnell says. "...This week, a lot went to waste because I expected more."
About 20 kids have been showing up for breakfast, and 14 for lunch since the program started June 6. But there was enough food that 50 could easily have been served at each meal. And there are always plenty of books that kids can take for free.
It's all part of Colorado Springs School District 11's Summer Food Service Program, which is sanctioned by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. D-11 has 26 sites like the one at Westside, and three mobile trucks. All of them are located at, or operate near, D-11 schools that have high rates of poverty — measured by the percentage of schoolchildren who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. That rate has to be 51 percent or higher. At West Middle and Elementary School, which shares a neighborhood with Westside, 77 percent of the kids qualify.
Janine Russell, D-11's assistant food service director, says the district has been operating its summer food program for around 15 years. Most sites feed lots of kids. Mobile sites, which have been hitting low-income apartment buildings and trailer parks this summer, have been especially popular. Three trucks feed some 325 kids every weekday.
But Westside, a new location this summer, hasn't caught on with the neighborhood yet.
"Most of our sites are doing pretty good," Russell says. "They're doing anywhere from 30 on up. Hunt Elementary was doing over 75. They have hit, I think, over 100 for lunch."
The D-11 program runs through late July or early August, depending on the site. Schedules and menus can be located at d11.org/fns/summermeals.htm, or you can call 520-2924 for more information. Adults can join their children and purchase breakfast for $1.50 or lunch for $2.75.
And believe it or not, D-11 isn't the only organization handing kids free lunches this summer. Care and Share Food Bank for Southern Colorado also has a program that serves breakfast, lunch and snacks to kids ages 1 to 18, no questions asked. That program runs until Aug. 19 at various sites across the county. Families looking for a nearby site can call 877/93-HUNGER or visit summerfoodcolorado.org.
Harrison School District 2 also has a program for kids involved in summer education programs. Kids eat free, while adults can join them for $2.50.