SAN JOSE -- It turns out that there is a free lunch after all.
That is, if you are 18 or younger, if you can get to the lunch line and if you don't mind cafeteria food. Uncle Sam subsidizes lunches throughout the area.
While child advocates worry about poor children going hungry in the summer, free lunch programs have meals going uneaten. By law, they are required to offer meals to the community and serve any youth who shows up. But not many kids do.
A study by the California Food Policy Advocates of Oakland shows that the number of federally paid lunches for California youth fell by about 40 percent from 2006 to 2012.
That's because in that time budget-squeezed schools have cut summer school. "One major cause of the decrease that we've seen in California over the last several years is that there is much less summer academic and enrichment programming happening across the state," said Tia Shimada of the nonprofit group.
But if they serve mostly low-income students, schools still can get federal funding for lunches. They mostly offer meals on campuses where summer programs -- limited offerings required by law or enrichment classes provided by outside groups -- take place.
"We welcome hungry kids," said Jan Kaay, superintendent of the Luther Burbank School District in San Jose, where 30 students eat breakfast or lunch daily. But the school has the capacity to feed 100.
Burbank will serve meals until school resumes Aug. 26. Other programs are winding down.
The East Side Union High School District has advertised its summer free lunch program on school marquees and banners, and staff is spreading the word. This summer, it's feeding up to 2,050 youngsters daily on five of its campuses. But, said Julie Kasberger's, East Side's director of general services, "we can always feed more."
Most of the diners are already on campus for summer programs. At three of the schools, lunch is at 10 a.m. -- really more of a brunch -- and the schools then offer an afternoon snack. The idea is that if you've got a captive audience, the kids will eat. But get up early for breakfast on campus? C'mon, these are teenagers.
The 5 percent of the diners who are drop-ins are mostly young neighborhood children brought by their parents, or elementary-age campers at nearby summer programs.
It's an excellent arrangement for the Alum Rock Youth Center, whose 130 summer camp students trek next door to James Lick High School for lunch every day.
On Friday, campers were happy because it was spicy chicken day. It's so good that camper Gabriella Ponce, 8, said she would eat lunch at James Lick even if she weren't at camp.
And, said Hinun Tran, 8, "They let us eat Jello-O too!"
Older students agreed the food is tasty -- in contrast to middle school food, "It doesn't taste like something died in it," said Manuel Gamboa, 14 -- but they said no one would venture onto campus just to eat.
A nonstudent might be nervous, said Adriana Fraga, 14, one of 150 incoming ninth-graders attending a six-week program to introduce them to high school. "People would say, 'What are you doing here?' "
Nearby, the Alum Rock Union School District feeds about 900 students Monday through Thursday at three of its schools and also at the Boys and Girls Club of Silicon Valley.
The San Jose Unified School District has provided more than 4,350 meals a day this summer. If that sounds like a lot, during the school year the cafeterias served 15,000 meals, including free, reduced-price and fully paid ones, said district spokeswoman Traci Cook.
The question is what's happening to other low-income children not showing up. California Food Policy Advocates found that about 83 percent of California's low-income children -- 2.1 million kids who participated in the federally funded lunch program during the school year -- went without those lunches last summer.
Schools and cafeteria managers are discussing how to attract some of those children.
"We've had a couple of big kids wander by, but not many, which is a shame," said Kaay. She considered opening the gym for recreational sports, but lacked the staff for security and maintenance.
Cook said, she's considering other ways to promote the free lunches next year. "Of course, we want everybody in the community to take advantage of it if they need it."
Richard Halstead of the Marin Independent Journal contributed to this report. Contact Sharon Noguchi at 408-271-3775. Follow her at Twitter.com/NoguchiOnK12.
Federally funded meal programs are open free of charge to youth ages 18 and younger. Lunch hours vary by site; some start as early as 10 a.m. For a searchable nationwide database of summer meal programs, including phone numbers, duration and addresses, go to http://networks.whyhunger.org/.
In San Jose, lunch, and sometimes breakfast, is served weekdays at the schools through the following dates:
Monday : Sylvandale Middle
Tuesday : Kennedy Elementary
Thursday: Andrew Hill, Mt. Pleasant, Overfelt and Yerba Buena high schools; Boys and Girls Club, Fischer Middle, Lyndale Elementary and Ocala Middle schools
Friday : Downtown College Preparatory.
July 30: Bridges Academy
Aug. 2: James Lick High
Aug. 9: Almaden, Galarza, Gardner elementary schools
Aug. 13: American Indian Education Center, Anderson Elementary
Aug. 23: Luther Burbank School
Source: Why Hunger