North East Independent School District’s Healthy Kids Cafe gives new meaning to the term food truck. For starters, the operation is run out of a decommissioned yellow school bus, and food is free at any of the bus’ stops.
What were previously brown imitation leather bus seats have become booths with dining tables. The back of the bus functions as the kitchen, outfitted with a generator that powers food warmers and coolers. The front of the bus acts as a library, complete with a librarian and bins of books, ready to be checked out.
For a fourth summer, the Healthy Kids Cafe has traveled to various sites in the confines of North East ISD, taking lunches and summer reads to students who face obstacles in making it to school sites for one reason or another. Most school districts continue to offer free lunch or breakfast in the summertime at a few campuses, but few take the meals directly to students.
“The idea is that some families have barriers to getting to campus, and we wanted to find a way to offer meals in the summer in those neighborhoods,” Executive Director of School Nutrition Sharon Glosson said. “We hit four neighborhoods every weekday and it’s open to any child. They don’t have to attend North East ISD.”
The project started four years ago when NEISD officials observed a similar project in San Marcos ISD, Glosson said. San Marcos ISD used an out of commission school bus to visit more rural parts of the district. NEISD’s transportation department donated a bus that was about to go out of rotation to the nutrition department and made some minor modifications.
Transportation officials helped to identify which areas of the community contained large groups of kids that might not make it to campuses for summer meals, and the Healthy Kids Cafe started its daily summer route.
The neighborhoods identified to visit in the program’s first year are still included as stops for this summer. The bus keeps to a strict schedule, visiting each area for a prescribed amount of time so students have an idea when to expect their lunches.
On Thursday afternoon just a little before 1:10 p.m., the bus rolled into its normal spot in front of mobile home community Creston Ridge’s basketball court and outdoor mail room. It was the bus’ third stop of the day.
Each stop’s popularity varies on a daily basis, but Creston Ridge typically has about 20 kids and families eat a meal onboard, said Aniska Francis, manager of the mobile operation.
Over time, more and more students have come.
“Families bring more back with them, and word of mouth spreads quick,” Francis said.
When children stop in for a free meal, their trays include an entree, piece of fruit, vegetable, chips, and milk. Kids have to eat their meals onboard, and parents can sit with them while they dine.
Roselynn, a 12-year-old student at Wood Middle School, has come to the bus almost every day this summer and in past summers when it has stopped in Creston Ridge. Slowly eating her buffalo chicken nuggets, the entree on Thursday’s menu, Roselynn explained that either one of the bus’ burrito offerings is normally her favorite.
Jennifer Curry, mother of four children, said she brings her kids with her every day. Her daughter Caroline, 2, sat next to her Thursday, popping buffalo chicken nuggets into her mouth gleefully.
“They send out little papers with what’s on the menu and my kids are always excited to see it,” Curry said. “They’ll ask, ‘What are we eating today?’
“It’s great to save money, and every bit helps.”
Plus, Caroline loves everything that she’s eaten on the bus, Curry said.