Summer Feeding: A Natural Fit for Mobile Meals

In School Nutrition’s April 2014 issue, author Christina Uticone uncovered a number of innovative school nutrition professionals adapting the popular food truck concept in their school meals operations. Districts that provide summer meals (as a sponsor or a vendor) find that hitting the road offers them a terrific opportunity to boost participation.

Brian Alexander formerly managed outreach for summer meals for Share Our Strength, the anti-hunger advocacy organization, and now works in the Maryland Governor’s Office for Children. He believes summer feeding can provide the perfect entry point for school nutrition professionals to go mobile. “[Summer] is a good way to get your foot in the door and create some success, which you can then build upon, whatever that means to you—adding a programming element, or expanding locations and points-of-sale.”

Penny Parham, administrative director, food & nutrition, Miami-Dade County Public Schools, Fla., agrees, raving about the ease of using the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) to launch a mobile program. “Summer lends itself to an easier point-of-sale service; collecting money, meal accountability, and reimbursements—it’s so much more streamlined with the [SFSP].” Summer service can be a win-win for everyone: As you grow your program, you have the potential to reach underserved populations during a particularly difficult time of year and address a real need within your own community.

A mobile program means that summer meals can be offered more easily at a wide variety of sites and not rely as heavily on getting kids to come to a school site. You can send your vans or trucks to churches, recreation centers, housing projects, community parks and more. Take time to scout carefully and be sure to get input from community leaders, because where your truck is parked can make a big difference, even by just a few blocks or feet. Katherine Klosek of the Family League of Baltimore says she’s gotten into her car and driven through neighborhoods to identify where the kids were congregating during the day. One site she scouted was very quiet early in the morning, but she was advised to come back later in the day and discovered it was a popular afternoon location for local kids.

Libraries have proven to be an effective site for mobile summer feeding programs, as Minneapolis Public Schools’ Assistant Director of Nutrition Services Irfan Chaudhry has discovered. “Our work with a library on the north side of Minneapolis is one of our biggest success stories,” states Chaudhry, who credits the library administration and staff for their open attitude and hard work. The partnership has been a win-win. “We were serving 60-100 kids at just that one spot, and the library staff swears that the behavior of the kids was improved because they were fed and not rambunctious when they returned to the library [after eating].”

“Working with the community is really a best practice, and I can’t stress that enough; they know where the need is,” says Klosek. “You can use [enrollment and social services] data and GPS [mapping] all day long, but until you go out into the community and get that feedback, you won’t know where your best bet for a feeding site can be.” She still hangs onto a handwritten list of potential feeding sites developed during an early meeting with community leaders in Baltimore, “because I thought it was such a great example of community involvement in this project.”

Safety is another important consideration. “You have to think about traffic, you have to think about parking, you have to think about where the kids will be dropped off,” asserts Parham. “It’s very important you don’t have a beautiful food truck that is attractive to children parked in the middle of a drop-off zone!” Finding the right spot, says Parham, may take a little finessing in the beginning; the need for these types of adjustments will reveal themselves early on in the process.

While the novelty of your food truck will capture attention, you may need more help to spread the word about summer meals. This is where support from specific community leaders—both elected officials and those who have a trusted and authoritative voice—is essential in lending visibility and legitimacy to your endeavors, especially when it comes to promoting summer meals. According to Alexander, when families see a trusted member of the community vocally supporting your new mobile delivery program—whether it’s in the lead-up to the launch of a summer meals program or actually showing up at summer delivery sites—“It lends a level of trust that will resonate with the people you are hoping to serve.”

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