School cafeterias across the Rogue Valley are cooking up more than 1,500 meals a day this summer. But there is still room at the table for more kids to eat for free.

School cafeterias across the Rogue Valley are cooking up more than 1,500 meals a day this summer. But there is still room at the table for more kids to eat for free.

Nine out of 10 children who rely on campus meals during the school year aren't taking advantage of the program, say experts.

This concerns Lindsay Taylor, a registered dietitian with school food provider Sodexo, which participates in the Summer Food Service Program. The federal program pays for hot meals to be given away in school cafeterias during summer vacation to prevent childhood hunger and malnutrition.

Sack lunches are also distributed to children at apartment complexes, play areas and parks in high-needs neighborhoods.

In Jackson County, 60 percent of children — about 16,735 — are eligible for free or reduced-priced meals year-round, according to the Oregon Department of Education.

In Josephine County, 64 percent of students qualify. "Anyone who is 1 to 18 years old and who wants to eat can be fed," says Taylor, standing inside Jackson Elementary School's cafeteria in Medford on Wednesday.

"We don't ask who you are. We just want you to eat."

Research shows that malnourished children lack the nutrients required for proper health and development, which are needed for academic achievement.

Hungry kids get headaches, stomachaches and become sick more often than those who have regular meals, adds Heidi W. Dupuis, who manages the state's school nutrition programs.

Lack of healthful food during the summer months may also set up a cycle for poor performance once school begins. And kids who don't have enough to eat find it hard to concentrate, be active and behave.

"Their blood sugar drops when they're hungry, and they get tired and irritable," says Taylor. "So do I when I'm hungry."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture funds the Summer Food Service Program, but not all school districts participate.

The Central Point School District serves its schools.

Sodexo provides meals for districts that cover Medford, Phoenix, Talent, Eagle Point and White City.

Ashland does not have a summer lunch program this year because of the low turnout in previous years, says school board member Carol Davis.

Taylor shakes her head.

How could the program be more welcoming to more families, she wonders?

She looks around the Jackson Elementary cafeteria at lunchtime and sees children in neon-green Kids Unlimited T-shirts. They pick up a tray, slide through the food line, and walk over to the salad bar.

Sprinkled among the camp kids are a few families who wrap fun activities around the meals.

Taylor points to the Jackson Aquatic Center adjacent to the elementary school.

"Kids can come right from there to here," says Taylor, 28, who has been with Sodexo for two years.

Adults with children pay $2 for breakfast or $3 for lunch.

On this day, Ruby Miller of Medford is sitting at a round table surrounded by five of her six grandchildren.

They spent the morning at her house doing chores, and now it's time to eat, then play at the nearby park.

Grandson James Miller, 5, said he liked picking a banana off the salad cart. The banana skin lay on his plate next to a pond of chunky turkey gravy on mashed potatoes.

He ate what he calls "arrots" (carrots), too, because he knows they are good for him.

But he says that they aren't as tasty as his nonfat chocolate milk.

His cousins, sisters Natalia Cruz Tye, 7, and Roselyn Cruz Tye, 9, finished everything on their plates.

They felt right at home here because they attended Jackson Elementary last year.

Today, they admitted, it was fun to eat in the cafeteria and not have to go to class afterward.

Taylor visited the table to explain the reason the cafeteria workers asked them to pick at least three items from the hot dish area and salad bar.

"You get nutrients from different food groups," she says. "You will grow big and strong if every day you eat proteins, dairy, fruits, vegetables and grains, like in the whole-wheat toast."

Natalia and Roselyn nodded, but their cousin, Dekken Cowart, 3, tuned out the lecture.

He ate a bite of his pear and just smiled at his grandmother.

Reach Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or jeastman@mailtribune.com.