Taxpayer-backed free lunch program feeds controversy in California

Every summer across the U.S., more than 3 million children eat for free at more than 30,000 sites, from schools to recreation centers to migrant worker camps. It's a valuable resource for families who are struggling, and, critics say, a nice freebie for those who aren't.

The "Summer Fun Cafe" in Northern California and others like it are funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in areas where at least half the children qualify for free lunches during the regular school year.

But come summer, anyone 18 and under can pull up a chair to Uncle Sam's table.

"There's no income requirement, no enrollment, no paperwork," says Monique Stovall, nutrition director for the San Juan Unified School District outside Sacramento, Calif. "All children in the community in that age range can come eat with us for free." Signs around the district headquarters advertise there is no eligibility requirement, and all kids are encouraged to take advantage.

That's why, along with a choice of sandwich, fresh fruit and milk, these free summer lunches come with a side of controversy.

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For many low-income families, a free lunch means more money can go toward other meals or necessities. For others who can afford to feed their children, it's an easy way to get fed and go.

"Normally we wouldn't qualify for a free lunch, but we're close and it's convenient, and my kids like it -- that's important," says mom Julie Marks, who brings her two young sons a few times a week.

Taxpayer watchdog groups say most Americans are fine helping children truly in need. But Jon Coupal, with the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, asks, "if someone is coming from a family that makes a quarter of a million dollars a year, and they're not checking eligibility when they're coming in the door, I think most people would wonder, 'Am I paying for this?'"

In many cases, sponsors and non-profit groups help arrange and promote the free meal sites in their community. According to program supporters, the summer lunch program is easier to administer when the location qualifies, as opposed to the individual user.

"We don't have to ask your income, because the overall purpose of the program is to provide a healthy meal to children," says Stovall.

Organizers contend after a summer of nourishing meals, these kids will do better when school resumes in the fall. Monitors are on hand to make sure the lunch is eaten on site, and that the adults don't mooch off the kids.

But those rules don't go far enough for critics who wonder if the "come one, come all" invitation won't have taxpayers feeding every child, whether they're needy or not.