Pool supervisor Dennis Ayala, left, of the Lower East Side...

Pool supervisor Dennis Ayala, left, of the Lower East Side (where he grew up and attended this same park) hands out free meals at Hamilton Fish Park Pool in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. (June 28, 2012) Credit: Craig Ruttle

Cool blue water, Thursday's heat and happy kids sitting poolside munching on grilled chicken salads kicked off the first day of summer vacation at Hamilton Fish Park on the Lower East Side.

"I couldn't believe that they had salads -- actually healthy food," said Crystal Pujols, 39, whose children were swimming in the pool and enjoying their free lunches at the picnic table area -- something she used to do as a child.

"Now, I got my kids going and I'm glad. It's peaceful and beautiful, and it helps," she said of the summer meals program, which serves free breakfasts and lunches daily across the city. "I'm glad they still have this program. It helps, especially for us who don't have a lot."

Thursday also was the first day the city's 55 outdoor pools were opened to the public for the season. The pools are scheduled to be open seven days a week until Labor Day.

The 30-year-old summer program fills the gap for children under 18 at parks, pools, libraries and beaches who rely on school meals for their daily nourishment.

According to the city Department of Education, 7.1 million meals were served last year; in 2010, 6.9 million meals were provided.

"It's beautiful to give back. I grew up in this neighborhood and I remember coming here to get my meals," said Dennis Ayala, 39, city Parks Department pool supervisor, who handed out all the breakfast bags and started on the lunch bags at noon. He estimated that he would serve about 300 lunches.

"I know what it's like. Sometimes parents are not around and the kids have to find their own food," he said, recalling the "stretchy ham sandwiches and old raisins" he used to eat at the pool.

Jahil Wallace, 8, sat at a picnic table with his brother and a friend. "I like the chicken -- it's the only thing I like," he said smiling, as his 18-month-old brother was being fed applesauce by their aunt, Toni Wallace, 25.

His friend, Donovin Medina, 11, of Queens, politely ate his lunch. "I like the salad," he said.

This summer's menu includes pancakes, scrambled eggs, and bagels with yogurt cream cheese for breakfast. Roasted chicken with whole-grain pasta, carrots, corn salad and cold vegetable stew with zucchini, corn, tomato and basil are for lunch.

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