Carissa Newman could hardly believe her luck. She and mother, Brenda, pulled into the parking lot of the Holiday Lakes West Civic Center on Wednesday to find a school bus that looked more like a cafe, complete with tables, chairs and — best of all — free meals.
"Yes! Oh my gosh!" The 6-year-old ran on board, sitting at a table with her mother and tearing into a lunch that included a super submarine sandwich, milk, fruit, Carroteenies and dip. "This is cool!"
Carissa enjoyed her feast aboard the Gulfside Mobile Dining bus, a free summertime lunch service for kids that operates from a home base of Gulfside Elementary School. The bus has five stops every weekday throughout the Holiday area while school is on break.
A child does not have to be a Gulfside student, or even a pupil of Pasco schools, to enjoy a meal on the air-conditioned school bus-turned-roving cafe. They don't have to preregister or meet certain income requirements to participate, either.
"They just have to be a kid," said Gulfside Elementary principal Chris Clayton, who administers the lunch bus program. "If the parents want to drive them in from Pinellas or another county, they will be fed."
Although this marks the first year for the lunch bus program, the concept evolved from another federally funded free lunch program that debuted last summer at Gulfside Elementary and other sites throughout Pasco County.
"Some of our kids don't know where their next meal is coming from," said Clayton. "I see some kids running to the front of the lunch line, and some hoarding food to take home to their parents and siblings."
Still, Gulfside administrators reported low attendance last summer.
"We only had three to five kids per day," said Clayton. "So we asked our PTO staff to help us get more meals out to the kids by delivering them to neighborhoods in the area."
By the end of the summer, 500 meals had been served, both at Gulfside and in surrounding neighborhoods. And although pleased with this success, Clayton began to brainstorm a way to make the program bigger and more effective.
And pretty soon he figured that only a bus could hold the widescale lunch program that realized his personal vision.
"The district provided us with a converted school bus," he said. "The kids can sit at tables and chairs and eat with each other, like at a dining booth."
And aside from handing out food, Clayton and other school officials will be giving out free books to students on the bus starting next Wednesday.
"So in addition to getting a meal, they can learn something too," he said.
The bus, staffed by Pasco school employees, sometimes draws up to two dozen children at each stop, many of whom line up to await the bus' arrival.
"The kids get so excited, then think they're going to a restaurant," said Theresa Lewis, Food and Nutrition Services summer assistant with Pasco schools. "We serve each one a good sized nutritional round meal."
Kids sit and talk with their friends as they enjoy foods that range from ham and turkey sandwiches to peanut butter and jelly, pretzels to apple sauce.
Best friends Madeleine Cottrell and Danae Romanelli, both 9, appreciate the social time afforded by the lunch bus experience, as well as the variety of foods offered on the bus.
"We have breakfast and dinner stuff at home, but this is lunch food," said Madeleine.
"Free food!" is what drew Angelina Torres, 8, to the bus. And mother Danielle Fink appreciates the service.
"I think it's a very good idea," said Fink. "Although the need for free food is not an issue in my house, I know that there are some families around here who do have that need. And if the parents are at work, this gives the kids a place to go and be with their friends."
Cindy Norvell, a FNS area specialist for the Pasco school system, says 53 percent of all Pasco students qualify for free or reduced-price meals during the school year. It's closer to 85 percent among Gulfside Elementary students.
"We've been thinking for two years about how about we could get the kids fed during the summer," she said. "With his idea, Chris Clayton showed us how we could get it done."
Norvell hopes to expand the lunch bus program to other areas of Pasco County.
"Even when the kids aren't in school, we still worry about them getting enough to eat," she said.