CR School District’s summer lunch program goes mobile

CAMDEN-WYOMING — A need to reach deeper into the community to make sure students are fed while not attending school is never more evident to Caesar Rodney School District dietitian Jennifer Montano than when she asks students about their vacation time during the year.

“One example was back over Easter I was in the cafeteria talking to kids and I asked them if they were excited about the upcoming holiday,” she said. “Just seeing the look come over their faces — they don’t know what they are going to do that week for food. So many of these kids wonder where their next meals are going to come from when they’re not in school and it’s no different over the summer.”

Last year, Caesar Rodney hosted free breakfast and lunch programs at their schools throughout the summer. Ms. Montano said that turnout was low — about 11,000 meals served. The estimated demand is much higher. This year, with the maiden voyage of their new Mobile Meals bus at Brecknock County Park in Camden on Wednesday afternoon, the district is tracking down those in need.

“We have five different sites each day, five days per week,” said Paul Rodgers, supervisor of child nutrition for the district. “This is in addition to the cites we have at our schools and other locations serving free lunches throughout the summer as well.”

Parents stand with their children waiting to get on the Lunch Bus during Caesar Rodney’s Summer Mobile Meals kickoff at Brecknock Park in Camden on Wednesday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

The locations the bus stops at throughout the summer were dictated by how undeserved each area of the district seemed to be, said Ms. Montano.

“They are low income areas that we couldn’t get participation from last summer,” she added. “Several are close to Brown Elementary School. We also picked out several apartment complexes where there was a need. The crime rate is some areas kept us at a distance, but we’re getting as close as we can to areas that need the most help.”

The food bus stays at each location for about 30 minutes and serves a free lunch (or breakfast depending on the hour) to anyone under the age of 18. However, no identification is required.

Maiah Sherd, 15, gives Yazmin Henry-Hill, 1, some pizza in the Meal Bus during Caesar Rodney’s Summer Mobile Meals kickoff at Brecknock Park in Camden on Wednesday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

“People feel more comfortable if they don’t have to identify themselves, and it’s really just about getting kids fed,” said Ms. Montano.

The used bus making the stops was recently acquired by the district from Hilton Bus Service for $4,900, said Mr. Rodgers.

“The wrap cost $9,600 and the tables and chairs inside cost another $5,000,” he added. “In my opinion, this is the most economical way to reach out to our district’s families. Many schools buy food trucks, and these can cost up to $150,000. With this bus, we’re out and running in the community for around $20,000. You’re getting a better return for your investment.”

Lilly Borrows, 5, gets a hug from Caesar Rodney High School’s mascot, Spirit during Caesar Rodney’s Summer Mobile Meals kickoff at Brecknock Park in Camden on Wednesday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Capital School district’s recently launched food truck that operates in a similar fashion cost an estimated $147,000 and was purchased with federal school lunch program grants.

The old seats in the bus were ripped out and the interior was redesigned to be similar to the cafeterias the students are used to at their schools — with seating and tables along the side, and food storage in the back. The food is prepared back at Caesar Rodney High School and reloaded throughout the day as needed to removing the need for food prep in the bus is eliminated.

“Today we have pizza or peanut butter and jelly, and each meal comes with a vegetable, fruit and a milk,” said Ms. Montano on Wednesday.

The program is funded by the USDA and Department of Education, Ms. Montano noted.

“We keep track of how many meals we distribute at our sites and with the bus and everything comes out of pocket at first,” she said. “Then we report monthly to the USDA and they reimburse our costs.”

Ms. Montano hopes to reach numbers this summer that more accurately reflect the percieved need — she is hoping for around 500 meals per day.

“This is our official launch, but we actually started last Tuesday,” she said. “We’re not at 500 meals per day yet, but we’re inching up every day as more people hear about it.”

Tramon Hawkins, a 10-year-old from Camden, came across the mobile meals bus for the first time on Wednesday at Brecknock Park.

“It’s cool, it’s like eating at our school cafeteria, but it’s on wheels,” he said.

Derek, Tramon’s father, noted that he sees plenty of kids throughout the summer who look like they’re left to “fend for themselves when it comes to food.”

“This is a great program,” he said. “It really makes me sad that it’s as needed as it is, but it’s not these kids’ faults that there is nothing in the fridge for them at home. They still have to eat.”

A full list of Caesar Rodney School District locations and mobile meals stops and times, visit crk12.org/Page/2810. Access to other free summer meals provided by districts throughout the state can be found by calling 1-866-348-6479, texting “FOOD” to 877-877 or visiting fns.usda.gov/summerfoodrocks.

Reach staff writer Ian Gronau at igronau@newszap.com

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