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Summer lunch program more than just food
Summer food program coordinator Stephanie Huff gets the barbecued hot dogs moving at Libby Park in Lathrop on Tuesday. - photo by ROSE ALBANO RISSO

Sophia Cardoza has a standing date with her two grandchildren every weekday during summer from 12:30 to 1 p.m.

Their meeting place is Libby Park on Libby Lane just a block north of Louise Avenue and a mere stone-throw away Cambridge Drive.

The special occasion: a picnic at the park where the children can enjoy a free sack lunch courtesy of the Manteca Unified Nutrition Services.

Now in its third year, this Summer Seamless Program is for all children ages 2 to 18 years. No registration or ID is required to qualify for the nutritious food. They get a special barbecued hot dog treat on scheduled days. Hot dog day was Tuesday at Libby Park. Program supervisor Stephanie Huff thinks the barbecue event is what attracted the big attendance that day. Previously, they were getting only about 10 children. But on Tuesday, there were 40 of them who showed up with parents, others with grandparents like Cardoza. They ate at the picnic benches or, like the Hernandez family, on a blanket spread on the sun-dappled shades of a giant sycamore tree.

After lunch, it was play time and getting to know new friends for the children who took advantage of the jungle gym at the park, or simply played ball or catch-me-if-you-can games on the grass. It was also an opportunity for the kids, as well as the adults, to soak up some Vitamin D and loosen up activity-challenged muscles.

For many participants, though, this summer nutrition program is more than just good food and drinks. Cardoza explained why.

“They (grandchildren) are getting ready for preschool, so this allows them to socialize and interact with other kids to prepare them for the social atmosphere at school, to get along with other kids, and sit down and share. This is kind of like a mini-school for them,” said Cardoza whose grandchildren, Ruben DeLeon, 2, and Noble Roach, 2, are the children of her son and daughter.

“They love this. They look forward to it Monday to Friday, and they love the lunch ladies. And that’s another thing they are learning – falling in line to get the food, meeting the lunch ladies at the schools, getting to know each other in the neighborhood – all the different aspects that the kids need to know that makes a close-knit community. This (lunch program) makes the community close-knit and brings the community together,” added Cardoza who is a wellness coach and teaches Zumba.

Besides enjoying quality time with her grandchildren, Cardoza takes advantage of these get-togethers as opportunities to teach the little ones lifelong lessons such as respecting their elders and being polite. After each lunch, and before they leave the park, the youngsters already know what to do. They go up to the “lunch ladies,” shake hands with them and say “thank you” and “good bye.”

Cardoza is thankful that there is a program that, to a certain extent, helps the hunger problems of children from economically disadvantaged households.

“I think the Manteca Unified School District is awesome for putting on this type of program for the city. There are some kids who are probably not eating, and they know they can go there to get something to eat,” she said.