Summer school breakfast and lunch programs often rely on libraries, community centers and other locations to distribute meals when schools are closed. But beginning this year the 4,000 students in the El Dorado, Ark., district can pick up meals from a roving food trailer or vans that have circulated through the town.
The cargo trailer, outfitted with a cutout window, was custom designed for El Dorado. It is fully equipped for cooking, with a water supply, a generator, sinks, a grill, a fryer, a vent hood, freezers, refrigeration, a serving line and storage. “We can cook in the trailer, but what we usually do because of the volume of people we’re serving, is use the high school kitchen as a home base, then load everything onto the trailers,” says Kimberly Newman, the district’s child nutrition director.
The trailer was branded “Cat Bites,” a riff on the schools’ mascot, a wildcat.
Newman says the staff prepares for about 120 students, and “we give away that and more” from the trailer, which parks at one of eight regular locations—the most popular school bus stops—twice a week. Kids receive breakfast and lunch for that day and the following day; they also have their choice of fresh fruits, chocolate or plain milk, juices and vegetables.
Photo: The Cat Bites trailer, along with van deliveries, feed about 800 kids each day during the summer.
The trailer was the culmination of a dream by the school board and the previous child nutrition director, Grace George, Newman says. All students in the district are eligible for free meals, and the trailer seemed like a good solution to make sure they would have access to that food outside the school year.
“Grace did all the planning and dreaming, and when she moved on and I took over, I executed that dream,” Newman says.
The food trailer, which was delivered during the summer of 2020, racked up some miles during the 2020-21 school year, when it was repurposed to provide meals for teachers. It would rotate through different schools during the week and make lunch for the teachers, who have only 20 minutes to eat. Teachers preorder street tacos, barbecue and other favorites from an online menu and the meals are ready to pick up.
Photo: The trailer is equipped for prep and cooking.
“The teachers can enjoy a hot meal--it’s been a great way to boost morale,” Newman says.
Besides the Cat Bites trailer, a school nutrition operates a van that delivers grab and go meals to various neighborhoods each day. Between 50 and 75 families take advantage of the service. El Dorado schools qualify under USDA’s Community Eligibility Program, which provides meals for any child under 18, so cafeteria workers have also supplied meals to several local daycare centers, which took a financial hit last year because of COVID.
All told, about 800 children receive meals and snacks each day, Newman says. Meals tend to be kids’ favorites—cheeseburgers, spaghetti, chicken sandwiches—and layered salads, which are served in pint-sized plastic containers. Families can preview the day’s selections using a multilingual app that also provides allergen details.
Meal prep and delivery have been handled by a larger-than-normal summer workforce, a positive reflection of the COVID era. “It’s really brought a lot of our cafeteria staffs closer together,” she observes. “We have learned new ways to do things, and because things are always changing, it’s bonded our teams together.”
Photo: Students can choose from among a number of healthy snacks.
While she is not yet sure what the new school year will bring, Newman is hopeful that students will have more choice in their meals and their environment. Last year food was prepackaged and cafeteria seating was socially distanced. She’d like to see the return of salad bars, a kids’ favorite, and other ways to customize meals. Giving students a choice of snacks during the summer has been one way to provide them a bit of control.
Regardless of the rules going forward, COVID has had several positive outcomes. “It eliminated the phrase ‘This is the way we’ve always done it,’” Newman says. “We’ve retired that phrase and learned that we’re flexible, we can change on a dime and we’re problem solvers. We learned that everybody can do multiple jobs.”