Saturday, June 23, 2018
Education

Bay area kids get free lunches from the Cruisin' Cafe

On the first day of summer vacation, a yellow-orange school bus parked on the side of a neighborhood road in Dover, familiar yet out of place.

Another brightly painted bus rolled up to a parking lot in Brooksville.

"Come on!" the children lingering around the Hillsborough bus heard. "Come get some lunch!"

They lined up, 60 of them, for chocolate milk, turkey wraps and peach cups, and licked ranch dressing off their fingers in the shade.

Maribel Hernandez watched her 3-year-old daughter eat. She said she appreciated the help.

As the economy sputters back to life, school districts in Hernando, Hillsborough and Pasco counties have started programs this year to bring free food to kids who get it in school, but don't necessarily have access to healthy, well-balanced meals in the summer.

They got them Monday.

In Hernando County, Roxie Williams' four grandchildren had been waiting all morning for a trip to the Cruisin' Cafe. "Grandma, it's almost 12 p.m.," they told her.

"Grandma, it's time to go."

• • •

Many kids are fed through summer programs, but not everybody has the access or the resources to attend.

That's where mobile food programs enter the picture.

Free for anyone 18 and younger, the meals are paid for largely by federal dollars through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"This outreach program is really trying to focus on those who need it the most," said Rick Kurtz, Pasco County's food and nutrition services director. He hopes his program will serve about 70 lunches across its five stops.

"Those who are the least likely to have something available to them, we're going out to them," Kurtz said.

In Hillsborough County, that means hitting rural neighborhoods in Dover, Plant City, Ruskin and Wimauma.

"It's important to us that instead of having them search out for a place, we bring the food to them," said Ginain Grayes, a Hillsborough student nutrition services specialist.

In its first day, the two Hillsborough buses gave out 65 breakfasts and 108 lunches. At a Dover apartment complex, the housing manager went door to door to alert residents of the free meals.

That rounded up 42 children for a breakfast of banana chocolate-chip protein bars, milk and juice, said Teri Krage, the bus' student nutrition services manager. The district had to drop off 25 extra lunches, which turned out to be needed when 60 children gathered in the afternoon.

Children attending Vacation Bible School through St. Clement Catholic Church walked over from San Jose Mission.

They had planned to eat snacks, but now they got a whole lunch.

"It was sort of a blessing for the kids," said Maggie Cienfuegos, who works with the school. "It's a better meal."

As word spreads, school officials predict more children will come.

• • •

While there are places in Pinellas County where children can get a free meal, the county does not have a mobile food program like those in Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando.

The need for new ways to reach students during the summer has been growing in recent years, said Lori Drenth, food and nutrition services director for Hernando schools.

Between summer 2010 and last summer, the school district found that participation in typical summer programs like the YMCA and through parks and recreation had dwindled. Cash-strapped parents were having a more difficult time sending their kids to camp.

"We think that a lot of kids are sitting at home," she said.

Since the district feeds many kids through those programs, that meant that fewer kids were getting proper meals.

Drenth had a simple yet difficult problem: How do we find them?

The Cruisin' Cafe was born.

On Monday, Roxie Williams' four grandchildren piled into their minivan and headed to a Brooksville parking lot, where the bright, converted school bus was parked.

They rushed inside, then emerged, free meals in hand.

"I like it so much," 9-year-old Nathaniel Vanzant said.

"It put a smile on my face."

Danny Valentine can be reached at [email protected]

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