On a warm and sunny day by Van Cortlandt Park’s pool, children with their families were munching on apple slices, carrots and sandwiches and drinking fat-free chocolate milk, as they sat under the blue and white umbrellas of the circular tables, chatting away after a swim.
To top off the party, each child received a raffle certificate to win tickets to a New York Yankees game.
The Aug. 3 event aimed to promote the city’s Free Summer Meals program that runs through Sept. 4 and offers free breakfasts and lunches to children up to 18 years of age. The raffle was organized by Bronx Councilman Andrew Cohen, the Education and Parks departments and the American Dairy Association Northeast.
Moez Bali, who was there with his daughters Inez, 13, and Aymel, 6, was one of the winners. After he looked inside the white envelope containing his tickets, he was surprised to see that he received four. One each for him, his wife and two daughters.
“Awesome,” he exclaimed, hugging his daughters. “We’re so excited to go to the game.”
Michael Echevarria, who has been coming to the Van Cortlandt pool for more than 20 years, said the event and the food were “great.”
“Salami, cheese, apples, chocolate milk for the kids – it beats running across the street to Burger King or McDonald’s. It’s a lot healthier for them, too,” Mr. Echevarria said.
His mother used to bring him to the pool, and now he brings his son here.
“I used to get the free meals, too. I don’t think I got chocolate milk back then. Things are a little better now,” he said, jokingly. “We got the regular milk and some good peanut butter and jelly. They’ve upgraded.”
Eva Rodriguez, whose son takes swimming lessons at the pool three days a week, said she likes the chance for her son to get a free and healthy meal after swimming. The summer lunch program requires no registration, no identification, and people can just show up.
Ms. Rodriguez’s son, Albert, usually eats breakfast at home before going to the pool, but gets hungry again after swimming. He often eats the free breakfast, and on Aug. 3 he got the lunch.
“It’s good,” Albert said, as he finished off a carrot. His favorite part of the meal was the sandwich, while his mother and other parents seemed to appreciate the free and the healthy parts of the program.
“If you rely on the free school meals during the year and you have two children, and then school lets out and you are not aware of the free summer meals program, you could spend an extra $200 a month just to feed your children,” said Brenda Beltram, a spokeswoman for the dairy association.
But many families seem unaware of the summer program, and city officials hope to spread the knowledge.
“Summer school starts to end, and these programs start to wind down, and sometimes there’s a little bit of a drop-off, and we just want to get the word out that these meals are available and that people should take advantage of it,” Mr. Cohen said.
Ms. Beltram added 25 percent fewer children use the program after most summer school programs end in early August.
For some parents, such as Sade Middleton, who comes to the pool with her daughter to teach the girl to swim, the free meals are an extra incentive to visit the park. “I love this pool and they offer great food, a very healthy lunch, and the swimming’s good,” she said.
Mr. Echevarria, who said he has been to the Van Cortlandt pool at least 15 times this summer, estimated that the program saved him about $100 – about the amount of his monthly cell phone bill.
About 385,000 free meals were served during the 2015 summer program in the Bronx’s School District 10, a city Education Department spokesman said in a statement.
Besides offering free food at schools, parks, libraries and public housing buildings, the program also runs a food truck in the Bronx, one more in Manhattan, and two in Queens.
According to the Hunger Free America nonprofit group that aims to expand access to nutritious foods, one out of three children in the Bronx in 2012-2014 lived in what the organization described as food-insecure households.
As for the Bali family, Aymel was thrilled to be going to the Yankee game against the Tampa Bay Rays. The day after the Sept. 10 game is her seventh birthday, and celebrations were going to start a day early this year.
To learn more about the Free Summer Meals program, visit http://www.schoolfoodnyc.org/