On the last day of school, many students enjoyed their last, guaranteed nutritious meal until next fall.

On the last day of school, many students enjoyed their last, guaranteed nutritious meal until next fall.

Local school districts, independently or through school food provider Sodexo, will continue to provide free meals to kids as part of the federally-funded Summer Food Service Program, designed to keep kids who receive free or reduced-priced meals during the school year from going hungry during the summer.

However, in Jackson County, only about one out of 10 children who rely on campus meals during the school year will take advantage of the free meals available to them over summer break, according to a report released by Portland-based nonprofit Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon.

"If they are not eating at our food sites, then it makes us wonder where they are eating and what they are eating." said Lesley Nelson, a child hunger prevention manager.

As of February 2014, 62 percent of the children in Jackson County — about 23,045 — were eligible for free or reduced-priced meals, according to Oregon Department of Education.

Last summer, the Medford School District served a total of 22,078 lunches, Phoenix-Talent served 4,031 lunches, Eagle Point served 7,729 lunches, and Central Point served about 19,000 lunches. The Ashland School District did not offer free meals to kids last summer because of low participation in previous years.

With so few children coming to the school sites for the lunches, the program directors are often taking the lunches to them, handing them out to kids playing at local parks.

"On a hot day at the water park (in Don Jones Park), we've handed out as many as 180 lunches," said Central Point Food Service Director Anne Leavens, adding that the lunch includes milk, five entree options, fresh fruits and vegetables and a "guilt-free" oatmeal chocolate chip cookie.

Sodexo coordinates the summer meals program for the Medford, Phoenix-Talent and Eagle Point school districts while the Central Point and Ashland school districts provide the service in-house.

"Our people have been known to go out to playgrounds and say, 'Come in and eat,' " said Melinda Lidbetter, summer meals program coordinator for Medford and Phoenix-Talent school districts.

This summer, the Medford School District will serve free hot meals at Jefferson, Jackson and Howard elementary schools, and trained volunteers will distribute sack lunches to children at three low-income housing complexes — the Barnett Townhomes, the Lilac Meadows apartments and the Glenridge Terrace apartments.

Unlike the free and reduced price school lunches, the summer lunches are available for anyone 18 and under, no questions asked.

"We try to offer the program in schools that have a higher free and reduced (lunch) population around them," Lidbetter said. "But any child between the ages of 1 and 18 can come and eat."

Lidbetter said in an effort to attract kids, she posted the site information on the schools' June take-home menus and various school websites, and hung fliers at grocery stores, churches, food pantries and Phoenix and Talent city halls.

About 90 percent of the kids who get the free summer meals are part of a structured program, such as summer school or day camps through Kids Unlimited, Boys & Girls Clubs of the Rogue Valley, the Rogue Valley Family YMCA or the City of Medford, Lidbetter said.

Many of the meal sites are based at schools offering summer camp or hosting a summer program, she added.

Leavens said she sees a couple of reasons that many kids don't take advantage of the program: lack of transportation and the potential stigma of accepting a government handout.

"It seems to me that kids just don't feel like leaving the house," she said. "Most of them would have to walk or find a way there so they just don't do it."

Leavens said that during the school year, no one knows whose lunch is free, reduced in price or fully paid for. But during the summer, parents or guardians often don't want their children seen accepting government assistance.

"But that's not what it's meant to be," Leavens said. "It's meant to feed kids. And however many meals we serve that's the amount of money we get reimbursed to cover the program. We have to serve so many meals to cover the costs of the food and the labor."

The Central Point School District has six employees preparing the food, in addition to several volunteers who help distribute it in exchange for a free meal.

"If kids are left to make their own meals, then who knows what they are eating," Leavens said. "My kid would live off Pop-Tarts and cereal if I let him."

Mary Marshall and her husband, Casey, are both trained volunteers who distribute sack lunches to kids living in their neighborhood, specifically in the Lilac Meadows apartments. Mary said she tallies up the number of kids living in the area who won't be attending summer camp or day care to determine how many lunches to request from Sodexo. Starting July 8, the couple will hand out sack lunches with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, ham-and-cheese wraps or chicken salads to between 25 and 50 kids three days a week at the Lilac Meadows Community Center.

The children must eat at the center, and according to Jackson County Health Department rules, any food not handed out must be discarded.

"During the summer when kids are home, these families' food stamp benefits aren't going up so this is one of the guaranteed meals they will get," Marshall said.

But a child's family doesn't have to be on food stamps to be eligible for the program. According to federal laws, any student, regardless of the family's income, can receive the free meals during the summer.

The sites serving the free meals must be located in communities or neighborhoods where at least 50 percent of the students are eligible for free and reduced-price meals as determined by school or census data, said ODE spokeswoman Crystal Greene.

On Monday, Erin Bowers waited with her two children — 7-year-old Tanner and 3-year-old Dylan — for the Jackson Elementary School cafeteria opened.

Bowers said she plans her errands around the free meals, which her boys enjoy about three days a week.

"They get free lunches during the school year so it's nice not to have that expense during the summer," she said.

"And they love this," she added, point to the salad bar. "They get to pick whatever they want."

In addition to chicken nuggets and waffles, the boys enjoyed fruit and vegetables from the salad bar. Dylan repeatedly said he loved watermelon, and Tanner went back three times for apples.

Lindsay Taylor, a registered dietitian with Sodexo, plans the menus for Medford, Phoenix-Talent and Eagle Point and is responsible for making sure every meal includes milk, fruits, vegetables, meat and grains.

Roxanne Thompson, who was serving lunch at Jackson Monday, said she makes sure every kid chooses items from at least three food groups.

"If they don't, I say 'Please take a look at the salad bar. I am sure you'll find something you'll like,' " Thompson said.

Around noon Monday, Shannon Seiter rushed into the cafeteria with her five children, ages 5 to 13. Her sister Shauntell Seiter, who was in town from California with her four children, also accompanied her.

Shannon Seiter said she brings her kids, who attend Washington Elementary, to Jackson for lunch most weekdays, and if they wake up on time, they go there for breakfast as well.

If they eat at home, they are eating Top Ramen, macaroni and cheese or "something fast," she said.

"If I was having to feed the kids lunch every day through summer, then it would cost an extra $600 or $700," she estimated.

"They get a variety here and that's not something I can provide for them," she added.

Reach education reporter Teresa Thomas at 541-776-4497 or tthomas@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/teresathomas_mt.