"There's no such thing as a free lunch," economist Milton Friedman once said.

Officials and volunteers at Zion United Church of Christ in Lehighton beg to differ. Every weekday they offer free lunches to any student in the Lehighton Area School District.

Kenneth Leffler, church secretary, said the program was started because of the large volume of students in the district qualifying for free or reduced lunches.

"In the summer, they don't have that available," he said.

As a result, Leffler filed an application on behalf of the church with the Pa. Department of Education to provide summer lunches. The department responded affirmatively and provided training to the church staff and the volunteers.

Leffler said the lunches are available daily from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. There are no income guidelines. Any student in the Lehighton Area School District will be served. No reservations are required.

The lunches will continue through Aug. 20.

Leffler said so far the response to the lunches hasn't been as good as anticipated. He said more than two dozen youngsters showed up some days, but most days attendance was much less. On some days only six to 10 students were present.

He said flyers were sent home to every student in the school district on the last day of school, advising of the free lunches. There were also flyers placed in the Trinity Lutheran Church food pantry. More students have come to the church for a meal since the flyers were distributed, Leffler noted.

Leffler said the idea for the free lunches came last August when he saw a similar program was occurring at Meed's Methodist Church in Nesquehoning. When Meed's church heard of Zion's Feed-A-Neighbor program, it gave the church some free jelly.

The lunch program is handled by 15 volunteers of the church, with at least two per day offering their services.

Assisting the church members in preparing and serving the lunches are members of the Red Cross Club of Lehighton Area High School. Each day at least two club members are present.

Rev. Allen Heckman, church pastor, said the Red Cross Club helped the church decide on going full-forward with the free lunch program.

"The Red Cross Club gave us encouragement and said they would support us," he said.

Leffler assured that every lunch meets nutritional requirements as determined by the Department of Education. The lunches have protein, dairy, fruits, and vegetables. Every child receives an eight ounce container of milk.

The lunch program is one of several food projects at Zion United Church of Christ.

Pastor Heckman said the church has a "Feed A Neighbor Program" which is a food pantry.

Food is distributed on the last Thursday of each month from 6-8 p.m. Currently more than 300 people benefit from this ministry.

The church also operates an emergency food distribution on the second Thursday of each month from noon to 1 p.m.

Zion also serves a community meal in its dining room on the last Thursday of each month from 5:30-7 p.m. There is no charge for the meal. Pastor Heckman said currently about 125 people are served each month.

He said the church generally has service groups in the community assisting. Some of these service groups which prepared and served the meals in the past year include a Palmerton-area Girl Scout troop, Curves, the Ben Salem Church, and the Lehighton 9/12 Project.

Some of the food for this project is given to the church by Second Harvest, a food bank in Allentown.

Heckman said, "Zion's Feed-A-Neighbor food pantry supplied much needed food to 354 of God's children in June. Zion's Mission Outreach members served a nutritious meal in Zion's Fellowship Hall prior to the distribution to 117 folks. The next distribution of food and the Community Meal will be held on July 29."

Of the food programs in general, especially the one serving school age children, Rev. Heckman said, "We're just excited to have this opportunity to provide this ministry to the community."

For more information on any of Zion's food programs, call the church at (610) 377-1193.