Free summer lunch gets bigger

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Her children can have milk with their cereal, but can't have additional milk during the day as a beverage. The current family budget doesn't allow that. They are to drink water during the day and they get tea at night, said Dyan Cantelmi, 37, of Castle Rock.

But this summer, there's more milk. And instead of just a peanut butter sandwich for lunch, this Castle Rock family is also getting fresh fruits and vegetables and a variety of entrees and milk — regular and chocolate, too. That's because her children eat at the free summer lunch program started by former high school teacher Susan Meeker of Castle Rock and sponsored by the Zonta Club of Douglas County.

On the menu this day was a bagel with pizza filling, broccoli with dressing, orange slices and milk, which the kids ate at picnic tables in Centennial Park next to Castle Rock's Burgess Memorial Pool, 22 N. Gilbert St.

After lunch, the kids participated in a project with a local artist. Some days, Douglas County librarians lead activities.

Helping Meeker are volunteers from various churches, plus high school students and others, and the town has given a couple grants — $500 this year.

“For me, it's really transformational,” Denise Johnston said about volunteering. “It's sacred time.”

This is the program's third year. It serves about 65 kids from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. through Aug. 2 — and is open to any child regardless of family income. That's because of U.S. Census data showing that more than 50 percent of children in this swath of downtown Castle Rock are eligible for free or reduced lunches.

Meeker got the idea to start this after hearing that Colorado leads the nation in the number of children living in poverty. She started wondering what kids do when out of school and school lunches aren't available. “These are our kids,” she said.

Now, there are lunches. She contracts with the Douglas County School District Nutrition Services to make the lunches at a local school's kitchen, pays $3.15 for each, and then is reimbursed by the federal government. Initially to get customers, she knocked on doors at nearby apartment buildings, where she often found young kids home alone, in places with no bicycles and no books.

One 12-year-old girl said that sometimes at home she has to wait for dinner when there isn't food for lunch. “We love it,” she said about Meeker's program.