a woman with rubber gloves on smiles and holds out a paper plate of food
Andrea Chappell was serving up free oven-fried chicken for lunch at Washington Elementary on Tuesday — but nobody came to eat it. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Hungry kids can eat breakfast and lunch on Berkeley Unified all summer long.

For the first time ever, the school district has received federal funding to provide free daily summer meals, similar to those served in cafeterias during the year. Anyone 18 or under can come grab a plate, regardless of whether they attend BUSD schools or summer programs.

The program started Monday at Washington Elementary School, Berkeley Arts Magnet and Berkeley High School, where breakfast is served at 9 a.m. and lunch at 12:30 p.m.

“We think our kids should have healthy, nutritious meals made from scratch all year round, not just 10 months out of year,” said Bonnie Christensen, director of BUSD’s Nutrition Services. “Although Berkeley is becoming gentrified and more wealthy, there are a huge number of families still in need and food-insecure.”

During the school year, about a third of BUSD’s students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. When school lets out, some of those children might lose that reliable source of nutrition and go hungry or worry about where their next meal is coming from.

But those families haven’t been coming to get the free food — at least not yet — said Andrea Chappell, who’s serving meals at Washington this summer.

On Tuesday afternoon, Chappell sat behind the counter in that cafeteria, eager to fill up plates with hot, oven-fried chicken and green peas. But after the young students in the district’s summer learning program — who get first dibs, before the public comes — filed out of the room, the tables remained empty. It was only the second day of the program, and Chappell said she thinks the word hasn’t gotten out yet.

“I think it’s going to be good, as long as we can get kids to start coming,” said Chappell, who works in the Thousand Oaks cafeteria during the school year. “I just want them to come.”

Fruits and vegetables await eaters at Washington Elementary School. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

That morning, she had prepared enough pieces of meat for 50 members of the public.

With the city also offering Berkeley youth free lunch and snack at five different locations all summer, that level of demand simply might not exist. Christensen said this is a “base year” for BUSD, which will adapt and develop the program after observing how it works this summer.

The district was not eligible or able to offer meals at multiple sites throughout the summer until this year, according to Christensen. There are a number of criteria BUSD had to meet in order to receive the funding, including running programs out of schools located in neighborhoods with enough students from low-income families, she said. In the past, some of those eligible sites were used for city programs, she said.

The funding comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Summer Food Service Program and is administered through the state’s Seamless Summer Option program. Districts do not receive a specific grant amount or any money up front, but rather are reimbursed after the fact based on who’s served, Christensen said.

The city’s equivalent program is run at the West Campus pool, Strawberry Creek, the Berkeley Skate Park, James Kenney Community Center and Longfellow Middle School. Lunch at those locations starts at 11 a.m. and snack is served from 2:30 p.m. to 4 p.m.

The district programs run through August 21, except for Berkeley High’s, which stops July 19 to coincide with the end of summer school.

More information on the BUSD and city of Berkeley summer meal programs is available on the district website.

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...