Yankees manager Joe Girardi shook hands Thursday with dozens of schoolchildren who wore bright beach towels, swimsuits and goggles, telling them "to fuel the machine" with healthy food and plenty of exercise.
As they handed out lunches with salami, turkey or cheese sandwiches; oranges or apples; and skim milk, Girardi and city officials reminded Harlem families that New York City's free breakfast and lunch program is in full swing at city pools, parks and libraries. Last summer, the city served half a million meals to children under age 18.
"There are choices that we can make in life -- doing good in school, sports, acting; being musicians; the friends that we make -- but one of the most important choices we make is what we put in our bodies to fuel the machine," Girardi told the families at Lasker Pool on 110th Street in Central Park.
Girardi fielded questions too, including one from Brandon Smith Alston, 8, who wanted to know where retired Yankees great Derek Jeter was. "He's home in Florida," Girardi said.
Renee Stubbs, Alston's aunt who lives in the Kings Towers housing development close to the pool, said she brought Brandon and his cousin David Taylor, 13, "to get them out and give them a safe place to play, and the free lunch is very nice."
"I love swimming," Brandon said. "The water feels good and I get to hang out with my cousin."
Paris Salley, 33, brought his daughters Zayana, 7, and Zamira, 6, for the first time Thursday after opting to go to Coney Island during the past several weeks. "The lunches are good for the kids because I don't have to buy food outside, which is not always healthy."
Salley's daughters were among the 30 children who won a pair of tickets to a Yankees game.
The summer breakfast and lunch program is crucial for thousands of city kids who rely on school meals for nourishment, said Joel Berg, director of the New York Coalition Against Hunger. "One in five children in New York City face food insecurity sometime during the year -- a startling statistic, which only worsens in the summer," he said.
According to the coalition, 1.4 million city residents -- or about 17 percent of its population -- are food insecure. That means they either ration food, buy inexpensive food that is not nutritious or skip meals because they do not have money to buy food. Statewide, 14 percent of residents are food insecure, which in the past decade increased 40 percent.
Before leaving the pool, Girardi said: "I believe all kids deserve the same opportunity I had." Girardi, who grew up in Peoria, Illinois, said he learned early in life that "a good diet is essential."