HUDSON — Brandon Golden, 3, has one destination in mind for summer fun.
"He always asks me if we're going on the Lunch Bus," mom Jessica Golden said.
The Lunch Bus program has expanded greatly since its inception three years ago, when Gulfside Elementary School principal Chris Clayton conceptualized a summer food program.
"I knew I had a hunger problem in my community since at that time we had nearly 85 percent of our kids on free lunch during the school year," Clayton said. "I had been asking the district if I could become a summer feeding site, and the request was approved."
Soon Clayton realized that more help was needed.
"I noticed that too few kids were coming in for the meals . . . so my (Parent Teacher Organization) mothers and I decided to pack up coolers, load up our cars and take the food to the kids. . . . We served more than 500 lunches that first summer," he said.
Clayton shared the story with Pasco County School District officials, who responded by providing a refurbished school bus with the seats removed, replaced by dining booths.
"The summer Lunch Bus was born," he said.
This year, the district, teamed with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services' Summer BreakSpot program, is sending five lunch buses to more than a dozen sites throughout the county. Buses are running between Hudson, Gulfside, Pasco and Lacoochee elementary schools and Gulf Middle School. Meals are served by Pasco Schools Food and Nutrition Service professionals to children 18 and younger. No preregistration is required.
"In order to reach the many hungry children in our community, we realized that we needed to expand our units," said Cindy Norvell, a district nutrition specialist. "The demand for turning retired school buses into lunchrooms on wheels has greatly benefited our community. This program allows us to fill the gap to children that would otherwise not have access to a healthy meal over the summer."
Nutrition assistant Patti Burke serves 50 to 70 meals on the Hudson Elementary bus, along with smiles and warm greetings.
"I love this job," she said. "I hear so many (people say) 'God bless you' every day."
"The kids stand in line waiting each day for the bus," bus driver Karen Huntoon said.
The menu is balanced with proteins, fruits and vegetables, Burke said. Choices include turkey, bologna and cheese subs, yogurt dipper boxes, raisins, carrots, pears, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, apple slices, juice, and milk.
"You don't just get free food here," said Kadin Little, 10. "You get good food."
"And sometimes pizza," said Dulce Saucedo, 10.
Dulce Calixto, Dulce Saucedo's mother, also brings April Chavez, 1, on the bus.
"The lunch bus is great," Calixto said, feeding carrots to a smiling April. "The kids sit at the tables and see the outside, and they get to see each other during the summer."
Virginia Dorman, Pasco Elementary Summer Feeding Program supervisor and Stewart Middle School nutrition program manager, agrees about the need for summer food programs. Many schools offer free summer on-site breakfasts and lunches. Blue Bag and Pac-a-Sac 4 Kids programs provide food-filled backpacks on weekends and school breaks. The programs are supported by many community groups.
"We have a huge population in Pasco living under the poverty level," Dorman said. "The meal that we give them might be their only meal of the day."