By Christina Calloway
PNT senior writer
There is such a thing as a free lunch for Mary Lou Payen’s children, but it’s more than just free from cost, for Payen it’s free from hassle.
The foster mother of three brings her boys to the La Casa meal site, a participating organization in the Summer Food Service Program, so they can socialize and give them a chance to get out of the house.
“I bring them every day, we go to the park and then we come here,” Payen said. “It’s nice and cool. For me, I can make them sit down and eat.”
The program is federally funded and conducted by the Food and Nutrition Service agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
It’s a program that feeds hundreds of children in Portales daily and makes most of Payen’s weekdays worry-free because she says she can count on her children getting a healthy meal and she doesn’t have to cook it.
“They look forward to it because they know it means they get to get out,” Payen said.
The program has eight main meal sites in Portales and serves area summer programs, camps and vacation bible schools. It was created to provide low-income children meals during the summer but director of the Portales sites, David Briseno, says it fits in La Casa’s mission.
“It’s part of our mission to look at the whole family. We’re providing another need to help keep them healthy,” Briseno said. “We will serve any child between the ages of 2 to 18.”
The free meals meet federal nutrition guidelines and Briseno said children prefer hot food such as chicken fingers and pizza pockets.
Briseno added that the money they receive from the federal government is pumped back into the community for the food they purchase, about $65,000.
“The economy has hit everyone real hard, if there’s any way we can provide relief, we’ll do it,” Briseno said. “If we feed one child in need that day, we’ve met our goal.”
Christi Aldaz teaches at Valencia Elementary but says she applied for the lunch program position to interact with her students outside of school. She hands out meals at Rotary Park.
“It gets me out of the house, I like to see kids outside of school,” Aldaz said. “A lot of times, I really enjoy it.”
The program will run until Aug. 2.