When school is out in summer, hunger in economically-stressed communities can increase. That’s because students are no longer going to the school cafeteria for the free lunch, and often free breakfast, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Ohio County is one of the Kentucky school districts where buses take free meals to children in the rural communities where they live. WKU Public Radio's Rhonda Miller recently tagged along to see first-hand how the mobile summer program is impacting local youth and their families.
The honk of the horn from the yellow school bus brings two dozen children out of their homes on this shady street a couple of blocks from Beaver Dam City hall in rural Ohio County. Some children are with their parents and some are hanging on to brothers and sisters.
"How are you?” asks school bus driver Lesa Ralph, welcoming the young people ranging from toddlers to young teens, as they climb aboard the bus that has red, blue and green picnic tables and cheerful drawings.
"Y’all come on up and get a seat,” says Ralph.
It’s 12:45 on a Tuesday afternoon in July and families know the bus arrives at the same time, same place every weekday.
Ralph has driven a school bus for 18 years. This is her third year driving the bus with summer meals and part of this job is handing out lunches to the children.
“I put the milk in there and then when we get to the stop, all we gotta do, Tammy puts the sandwich in and they have a seat and eat,” says Ralph.
Tammy Hayes is food service manager at Ohio County Middle School. This is the sixth summer Hayes is on the mobile meal bus. She says there’s a basic weekly menu.
“On Mondays we have pizza sticks and corn on the cob. Tuesdays is a breaded chicken sandwich, chips and a fruit and a vegetable. Wednesdays is hot dogs, a fruit and a vegetable and a chip. Cheeseburgers is on Friday with chips and a vegetable. Thursday is uncrustables, that’s the peanut and jelly sandwiches.”
Ten year-old Juan Marcos offers his review of today’s lunch:
“Good.” He says this is one of his favorite days getting lunch on the bus, because he likes chicken.
This bus makes nine stops and a second bus goes to eight locations. This stop, like all of them, is only 15 minutes.
Brittany Royal rounds up her two sons, Levi, 8, and Weston, 3. She says this is the first summer they’ve come for mobile meals.
“I think it’s really nice for the kids," says Royal. "They look forward to it every day. They like to get on there and eat with their friends.”
At 1:00 p.m. the bus leaves to continue along the route.
One of the afternoon stops is Beaver Dam Park, where Carmen Ojedasolis, 3, takes her lunch to the covered picnic tables and sits with her mom and brother. Her favorite part of lunch, she says, is chocolcate milk.
Across Kentucky, 187,000 children are food insecure, according to the most recent report from Feeding America. The rate of food insecurity among children in the Bluegrass State is 18 percent, slightly higher than the national average.
On this Tuesday, Ohio County Schools Food Service Director Dianna Wilson stops by Beaver Dam Park. She says summer meals are served Monday through Friday for children 18 and under at four schools and on two buses.
“Before we started mobile meals we just had the schools open and we had anywhere from 5,000 or 6,000 meals for the whole summer," says Wilson. "And then in 2012, we started the mobile meals, and we went up to about 10,000 using our vehicles.”
Those first vehicles were vans and SUVs. The district switched to a renovated school bus for mobile meals in 2015, and added a second school bus in 2017.
Wilson says the number of free summer meals at the schools and on the two buses continues to climb.
“I love feeding the kids year-round through the National School Lunch Program and the breakfast program, but summer feeding is one of my favorite programs," Wilson says. "We were actually told by one student last year that if our bus did not run in that park, her and her brothers wouldn’t have had anything to eat. So that makes it well worthwhile.”
The Ohio County Schools Summer Feeding Program runs through August 2.
In addition to the federally funded weekday summer meals provided by the school district, the Ohio County Food Pantry provides backpack meals on Friday. The kids get those backpack meals on the bus, so they have food to take home for the weekend.