Lunch at Echo Loder

Mmm. Smells good. Smells cheesy, corn tortilla-ey. Some kids squish taco sauce out of little packets onto their chalupas. Griselda, 6, rips the corner off hers and munches from the inside out.

At about 11:40 a.m., droves of kids start filing into the cafeteria at Echo Loder Elementary School in Reno. Hungry kids. Kids from the summer school program, from the neighborhood, from wherever. All can line up for milk, a small pre-packaged salad, an apple and a plastic-wrapped chalupa.

It’s free. No questions asked, as long as you’re a kid between the ages of 1 and 18 years old. Echo Loder is one of about 10 spots hosting the Kids Café, a summer food program run by the Food Bank of Northern Nevada. Depending on the location, a Kids Café might provide breakfast, lunch, dinner and/or a snack time for children living in low-income neighborhoods.

Maria squeezes salad dressing onto her lettuce. Bianca sticks a straw into her chocolate milk.

“Are you hungry?” 6-year-old Leslie asks me.

“Yeah, I am,” I reply. “Do you think I could score a chalupa?”

Leslie nods happily.

Someone taps me on the shoulder.

“Adults aren’t allowed to sit at the tables,” a helper politely informs me. “You’ll have to wait in the back.”

No chalupa for me, I guess. That’s cool. I have almost enough cash in my back pocket to stuff my face with all- you-can-eat sushi. For the kids eating at the Kids Café, these chalupas might represent the heartiest meal they’ll get all day.

In Nevada, about 42 percent of those going without food are kids under the age of 18, according to recent Food Bank statistics. Many are from “working poor” families who are trying to survive on minimum-wage paychecks. During the school year, these kids would receive free or reduced-price lunches and maybe even breakfasts. But when school lets out, parents and educators worry the kids aren’t getting much to fill their tummies.

Some parents go hungry so their kids can eat, put off paying bills or insist that their children attend remedial summer school to get a free meal, say the folks from the Food Bank. If you want to know more about the program, or have some time or money to donate, call the Food Bank at 331-3663.

For Maggie Marino, the dining diva in charge of the Kids Café at Echo Loder, lunchtime is a happy feeding frenzy.

“This place gets chaotic,” she tells me, helping a small child obtain an apple from a high bin. The girl starts to walk away, but Marino stops her: “Do you want some salad? And don’t forget to take a fork.”

On Monday, July 11, a bunch of international environmental activists are planning another boycott of ExxonMobil. The oil company, one of the top contributors to Bush’s election, actively lobbies to reject the Kyoto Protocol (that global warming thing) and invests little in renewable energy. It pushes for drilling in the Arctic and has a nasty environmental record. More at www.pressurepoint.org.