The challenge posed to school district nutrition departments by summer feeding responsibilities is how to reach kids when they aren’t confined to the school buildings. That hurdle has led some districts to adopt food trucks and retrofitted buses as mobile dining platforms that can go out to parks, pools and other areas where kids tend to congregate in the summer.
But food trucks and buses are expensive and can represent their own challenges (you generally need a qualified driver, for example). That was the dilemma faced by the Redmond School District in Oregon, which offers a robust summer feeding program but found that it had some gaps.
“The problem was that we had pockets of need in some apartment complexes and while [the park feeding sites] aren’t far from the apartments, the kids we were seeing were more the older ones because the younger ones can’t get away from home on their own,” says Keith Fiedler, executive chef and manager for Redmond schools nutrition services.
He says the district rejected the idea of a food truck because it would be “overkill” given the relatively small number of kids it needed to reach and the costs and related issues it would entail. But there was another alternative: a non-motorized three-wheeled food cart with an insulated compartment that can hold enough food for up to a hundred young customers.
The mobile unit was purchased and retrofitted to meet food safety and other standards using USDA grant money. It is stocked each morning at a high school near a set of apartment complexes housing a concentration of kids in need of a nutritious midday meal, and then travels a set course around the structures as well as to a nearby park and pool, making six 15-minute stops and serving half a dozen or so children at each stop.
The cart, which is operated by Nutrition Services staffers Kathy Schoch and Virgil Mendes, averages 30 to 40 customers a day along its half-mile path five days a week.
“They get two to three choices daily, plus fruits, vegetables and milk,” says Tammie McCombs, assistant manager. “We want to make sure we give them some variety.” Entrees choices include turkey, ham and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and chicken Caesar salad.
The cart only began operating in July so it’s still in a pilot phase, but the results to date have been encouraging, Fiedler says, noting the district may add more stops to its schedule next summer.
Redmond has an enrollment of around 7,000 with a 52 percent free/reduced percentage, so there is definitely a need for the summer feeding program to reach as many kids as possible, but the cart also serves another purpose.
“The students who live in these apartments are not just hungry for a meal but also for a sense of security and association with other kids in a safe space,” Fiedler says.
The reviews so far have been glowing as the novelty of the cart has drawn attention all by itself. “At first, some kids thought it was an ice cream cart,” McCombs says, a not unreasonable assumption as it does play “ice cream truck music,” she admits. However, the disappointment appears minimal as the kids then help themselves to the attractively packed goodies from the cart’s cooler.
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