HOLIDAY — About 34 children gathered on the sidewalk at the Weston Oaks Apartments on Wednesday, some of them smiling, clapping and even jumping in anticipation.
And when the Gulfside Elementary School Lunch Bus arrived, they lined up to claim a seat at a special mobile cafe, where the service is friendly and the food free.
"Yay!" hollered Ramon Castillo, 11, claiming a box containing a turkey bologna and cheese sandwich, milk, juice and graham crackers. "I've been waiting here a whole hour!"
More than 600 of these meals were served last year on the Gulfside Lunch Bus, which offers free food to any child 18 and under with no preregistration or paperwork required. The food is served by Pasco Schools Food and Nutrition Service professionals on a modified district school bus that comes complete with cafe-style tables.
"With 85 percent of our students qualified for free and reduced lunches, we want to make sure that these kids get fed when they're not in school," said Chris Clayton, principal of Gulfside Elementary School. "Every little bit helps."
Originally intended as a convenient extension of the Gulfside summer feeding program, in which kids eat complimentary lunches and breakfasts in the school cafeteria, the lunch bus program boasts several new components this year.
When kids approach the bus, they will see a new wrap around the vehicle sporting an illustration of a school lunch as well as the name and website of the Summer Food Florida program. Administered by federal and state departments of agriculture, the program offers reimbursement to community sites where needy children can get the free food.
Two additional lunch buses will be riding the streets of Pasco this summer, originating from Hudson Elementary and Pasco Elementary in Dade City.
"We want to feed as many kids as we can," said Cindy Norvell, food and nutrition services specialist with Pasco schools.
Norvell credits Clayton with consistently coming up with new and inventive ideas in the service of his students. This year students will be able to select one free book from a library cart located at the front of the bus
"So this year the bus is not only a mobile cafe, but a mobile library as well," Clayton said, "and the kids get to keep the books."
Books for all ages were donated for this effort, courtesy of Generations Church and learning institutions such as Shady Hills, Oakstead and Denham Oaks elementary schools and St. Petersburg College.
"I got free books!" exclaimed Weston Oaks Apartments resident Anecia Graham, 10, who came off the Lunch Bus bearing new books for her and her brother, Trevion Graham.
According to their mother, Amanda Rothberg, her family gets a lot more from the Gulfside Lunch Bus program.
"I have a lot to deal with right now financially, and this program will help to relieve daily stresses," said Rothberg. "It will help us with food."
In the eyes of the Pasco schools professionals who are operating the bus this year, the program's benefits are not limited to student participants.
"I can't wait to see the kids this year," said Susan Brening, a food service employee who rides on the Gulfside bus to serve lunches. "I have my own kids at home, but these kids are special, too."
And Lunch Bus driver Patsy Highers, a longtime employee of the Pasco school system, specifically requested her assignment on the Gulfside bus this year.
"Any way that we can give food to kids," she said, "that's a good thing."