The scene in a school cafeteria is pretty common: lunch ladies organizing cartons of milk, the scent of ammonia and bleach used to sanitize table tops lingering in the air, and kids refusing to try their carrots.
It’s also the scene on MSD of Wayne Township’s new mobile bus café that launched this summer. The mobile cafe is housed on a refurbished school bus that has linoleum floors, fold down tables and benches and a built in cooler to store food.
“You walk in here and once you sit down you almost feel like you’re in a pretty traditional lunchroom,” Jeff Butts, MSD of Wayne Township superintendent said. “It’s the same kind of a countertop and the same kind of a bus seat you would see in a cafeteria table.”
Butts says the district made the renovations to the two school buses to provide consistent and nutritious lunches to students who use free and reduced price lunches during the school year, so they wouldn’t go hungry when school is out.
The need for free meals year round
Almost 80 percent of Wayne Township’s students qualify for free and reduced price lunches, which is why Butts and other district leaders wanted to find a way to provide meals for more kids this summer.
The district’s two refurbished buses traveled to 24 sites and delivered around 90,000 meals this summer, and the sites were chosen based on the highest concentration of students who get free and reduced price lunches during the school year.
One of the stops on the route is a mobile home park outside of Indianapolis. The bus sits in the parking lot outside the clubhouse for 30 minutes. During that time, Loretta Fleming walks her two daughters and their cousins to the bus so they can get lunch, something she says they look forward to everyday.
“The kids call it the party bus,” Fleming said. “The kids love it. They think it’s really cool.”
Fleming’s kids qualified for free and reduced price lunch when she lost her job more than a year ago, so she understands having to rely on the school for steady, nutritious meals.
Creating a sense of community, on the road
Fleming says the traveling cafeteria not only helps families who depend on meals during the year. It also gives the kids consistency.
“It’s kind of like they get to have lunch like they do with their friends, so they’re still meeting up with their friends every day at the same time, just like they did in school, so that part’s really cool too because they might not see their friends otherwise.”
Butts says this sense of community the bus creates is important to the district as well. He says they used to deliver summer meals to high need areas by car, but the bus helps them not only serve more children but interact with their students all year.
This is evident at the largest stop on the route at an apartment complex where the kids are lined up on the sidewalk, waiting for the bus to arrive.
“So you see that we have managers from the complex coming out that are talking to the kids, we have a police officer that has come out and he’s doing some community interactions with our students here,” Butts said. “You’ll see at some of our sites we have librarians that come out and bring the books. We have games going on. At our school sites sometimes you’ll see the teachers come in and they’ll do activities with the students or we’ll have a worksheet for them to do during lunch.”
Now that the students are back in school, Natalie Heslar,the district’s assistant child nutrition director, says a summer of food security for the students will help them learn.
“They focus better, they’re well behaved, more so than they would if they didn’t get a meal,” Heslar said. “There’s all kinds of research that proves kids will succeed better in life and in school, academically and physically.”
The cost of providing these meals doesn’t fall on the district– the federal government reimburses them for each meal as part of the free and reduced price lunch program.