There is such a thing as a free lunch

By By Dick Mason The Observer July 04, 2012 01:30 pm

The children and teenagers who come to Riveria Activity Center each weekday for lunch are an inquisitive lot.

The youths enjoy asking questions. One query, though, is never heard  — “What’s today’s lunch special?’’

The youths have no reason to pose such a question, for meal discounts are mathematically  impossible to offer. All lunches served at Riveria Activity Center this summer are again free for those age 1 to 18.

The Riveria Activity Center is one of six sites in Union and Wallowa counties providing free lunches on weekdays through a program funded by the federal government. 

There are no qualifications.

Everyone who meets the age requirement eats free regardless of where they live or their family’s income. Adults are charged $3 a meal. Outside La Grande the free lunches are provided in Elgin, Lostine, Enterprise, Wallowa and Joseph. 

An average of 160 children a day eat lunch at the Riveria Activity Center. This is up from a year ago when 135 to 140 ate per day, said Jeff Hensley, assistant director of Community Connection of Northeast Oregon. Community Connection runs the program in La Grande and at four sites in Wallowa County.

At the Riveria Activity Center, cooks Sharon Linville and Robyn Carper greet children each day with warm food and smiles. Linville and Carper are succeeding in bringing some of the quieter boys and girls out of their shells this summer. Linville speaks of two boys so shy they would barely acknowledge her when the summer lunch program started last month. The boys have changed a lot since then.

“Now they give me high fives,’’ Linville said. 

Youths are served meals in Riveria’s gym and then eat outside on picnic benches in a playground area. Boys and girls eat in the gym when the weather is bad. This summer meals have had to be eaten indoors twice.

Skateboards are not allowed in Riveria’s gym. But youths sometimes mistakenly bring them in. A couple of boys brought skateboards in two days in a row at the start of the summer and had to be reminded that they are not allowed. Linville was impressed with how the boys sincerely apologized when they came in for lunch the next day.

The gesture illustrates the sense of goodwill and friendliness that prevails at the Riveria Activity Center during its lunch hour. 

The free meals are served from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Monday though Friday. Seconds are provided at 12:15 p.m. when extra food is available. 

The high for this summer to date is 201 people. The low is 79. Spaghetti was the main course the day 201 were served. Other popular entrees include biscuits and gravy and mini pizza, Linville said.

Following are Riveria’s main courses for the next four weekday days:

Thursday-spaghetti; Friday-pizza; Monday-chicken sandwich; and Tuesday-tacos. 

Milk, fruit and vegetables are also provided at each meal.  

Michael Leckenby, 12, lists chicken as his favorite main course. Michael said he visits each day for more than the opportunity to enjoy good food.

“I like hanging out with my friends,’’ he said.

In Elgin, free lunches are served  from 12:15 to 1 p.m. Monday through Thursday in the cafeteria at Stella Mayfield School. The program is run by the Elgin School District and funded by the federal government.

In Wallowa County, the program is funded by the federal government and private donations. Meals are served Monday through Friday at:

 • Joseph — 12:15 to 12:45 p.m., behind city hall.

• Enterprise — noon to 12:30 p.m. at the city park. 

• Lostine — 11:15 to 11:45 a.m. at Lostine city park.

• Wallowa — noon to 12:30 p.m. at Wallowa city park.

Youths are sometimes entertained in Wallowa County at lunch by performances such as one last week by an old-time Chautauqua group. People interested in putting on shows for Wallowa County lunches should call the Community Connection of Northeast Oregon office in Enterprise at 541-426-3840.