Zion United Church of Christ in Lehighton was honored yesterday by two government agencies – one federal, one state – for the success of its free summer lunch program for school students.

Ken Leffler, church office manager, said the program will resume on June 11, operating weekdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. It's open to all students – grade school through high school – in the Lehighton Area School District.

No reservation or advance registration is needed.

Yesterday Laurie Kepner, administrator of the summer food program with the Pa. Department of Education, presented Leffler with a plaque on behalf of her office and the U. S. Department of Agriculture for "going above and beyond the call of duty" in administering the free lunches.

She said Zion was one of only five such programs in the state receiving such recognition.

Also on hand for the award presentation was Mary Ringenberg, education administration specialist of the Pa. Department of Education.

Leffler, who coordinated the program last year, introduced Vickie Hegyi as the coordinator this year.

He said the program is run strictly by volunteers. Among the volunteers are over a dozen "site supervisors," many of them high school students.

"The award Zion U.C.C. got from the U.S. Department of Agriculture is for being a summer champion," said Kepner.

She pointed out that the church more than doubled the number of students it served "with creative advertising and good service."

This is the third year Zion is participating in the summer lunch program. Leffler said that in 2010, it started with an average of six to 15 students per day, but by the end of summer was serving 25 to 30 students a day.

Last year, the average attendance was 30 to 50 students per day, with sometimes as many as 60 to 70 students taking part.

There are no income guidelines for the free lunches.

He said the church also has an unrelated program every Wednesday in which adults can receive a free lunch from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. On some Wednesday last year, over 100 people at times were in the church dining room with the two programs intermingled.

Leffler said a donation jar was put out for the adult lunch program but nobody is obligated to contribute. Still, the donations have helped the program remain self-sufficient.

He said he's happy to be offering the student program.

"I just think it's great," he said. "I would do anything to keep this program going."

Leffler said the program got going thanks to the help of local news media, the TIMES NEWS and Blue Ridge Communications TV-13. He said this year he is also utilizing Facebook to spread the word.

A large magnetic sign was placed on the church door so that students walking past the church will be aware of the lunch program.

"I would like to see it expanded to other areas than serving food," he said of the program. He explained that possibly in the future it could include story-telling, activities in the church gym, and even the showing of movies.

Kepner said the USDA reimburses the church for every lunch served to individuals up to the age of 19. Leffler said no student has been turned away from the free lunch.

He said the community has been responsive to the program. As an example, Nev & Nise Produce of Mahoning Township last year donated food for the program, including cantaloupes. An orchard in the Palmerton area donated fruit.

When Kepner presented the plaque to Leffler, she told him, "You did a great job. Thank you."