School doesn’t start up again for more than a month, but students and families still can access free meals and activities around Umatilla and Morrow counties, thanks to several summer meals programs throughout the area.

Umatilla-Morrow County Head Start offers meals Monday through Friday, serving an average of 55 lunches per day to students all summer long.

Four-year-old Alfredo Mendez was enjoying carrots and a banana at lunch on Thursday, but said he was most excited about something else.

“I’m coming to get a toy,” he said, beaming.

The students get a punch card and receive a toy if they return for five meals.

People come to the free meals for lots of reasons: to get a balanced meal, to give their kids a chance to socialize, or to do the activities many of the free lunch venues provide.

“This year, we added a new side, having activities with the meals,” said Rikkilyn Larsen, the child nutrition director for the Umatilla School District. Four locations in Umatilla offer meals throughout the week and one, McNary Heights Elementary School, is the only program in the area that offers dinner.

Some of the students at McNary Heights are there for summer school, but others come just for the lunchtime events.

She said the activities have been a good addition to the program.

“I think it draws in more kids. At Kiwanis Park, we had kids lined up all the way to McNary Market, and they were all in circles doing yoga,” Larsen said.

Head Start offers art projects and literacy activities, as well as lessons geared toward the parents.

“We had the OSU Extension Service come and do food sampling,” said Toni Eddy, the child nutrition manager for the local Head Start. “The kids get to try the foods, but the parents can take home the recipes.”

Other locations are near playgrounds or pools, and some sites have field trip opportunities for students.

Eddy said the program is funded by the USDA. This year, she said they received a supplemental grant from Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon, which allowed Head Start to expand to another summer lunch program in Irrigon.

In order to meet USDA requirements, Eddy said they have to serve certain things: two ounces of protein, a serving of grain, and a combined serving of 3/4 cup of fruits and vegetables.

“We do sandwiches, wraps and salads,” Eddy said. “Tuna, chicken salad sandwiches. And we’re starting to get local fruit in. We had blueberries donated from a local farm, and starting next week we’ll have watermelon and cantaloupe donated.”

Eddy said donations from local farms help keep Head Start’s food costs low, and allow students to enjoy fresh produce.

The program is free to all kids ages 1 to 18, and Larsen said they encourage parents to come and eat with their children as much as possible.

“We charge $2 for adult meals, and it’s an unlimited salad bar,” she said. “We try to have a variety so the kids can find something they like.”

Families and kids can also find summer meal sites near them by texting “food” or “comida” to 877-877, calling 211-info, or by looking up summerfoodoregon.org.

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Contact Jayati Ramakrishnan at jramakrishnan@hermistonherald.com or 541-564-4534

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