Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
A lack of transportation means many students eligible for free summer meals aren’t getting them.
With the school year winding down for many students across the United States, food trucks are rolling out. Not the ones advertising gourmet mac-and-cheese and vegan burgers, but ones like Lunch Lizard in Mesa County, Colorado, which serves up “hot diggity dogs” and “beef street tacos” alongside fruits, vegetables, and cartons of milk.
These food trucks—sometimes they’re buses or vans—are for kids only. They’re part of the federal Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), which provides subsidized meals to children from low-income families after the school year has ended. In many states, the trucks are an increasingly popular way to bypass one of the major barriers to getting children nutritious meals when school is not in session.
Roughly 21 million American children ages 18 and under rely on free or reduced-price meals during the school year. Under SFSP’s Summer Meals Program, those same kids can get free breakfast and lunch in communities where 50 percent of kids qualify for subsidized meals. Meals are served by sponsors like schools and local Boys & Girls Clubs of America, who are then reimbursed by the United States Department of Agriculture.
Yet, as CityLab has reported, little change to a “one size fits all” school-lunch program established in the 1960s means that food fails to reach 85 percent of kids in need during the summer. Some areas lack participation from schools, which have traditionally been the largest sponsors of summer meals, according to the nonprofit No Kid Hungry. In other states, low-income families live on the edges of neighborhoods that aren’t eligible for the program. And in more rural places, a lack of transportation often bars kids from accessing these programs.
In a study published this week by Baylor University, researchers looked at more than 3,000 census tracts in Texas that are eligible to establish a summer-meals site. Then, using publicly available data from the USDA and the Census, they considered the factors—demographics, poverty level, and transportation access, for example—that could have influenced whether the tracts had a program or not.
“When we looked at the whole host of these variables, the transportation variables were consistently significant as predictors of which tracts had sites,” says Kathy Krey, the research director at the Texas Hunger Initiative who coauthored the study.
Urban areas where people either carpool, take public transportation, or walk to work were more likely to have summer-meal sites than places without these transit options. Suburban and rural tracts were also less likely to have meal sites in areas where people had access to a car.
"Anecdotally, we know that if you're in one of those small rural towns, there's a real time process to drive somewhere every day to get a meal,” says Rachel Wilkerson, data scientist and the lead author of the study. With parents opting for more convenient options—like giving their kids unhealthy snacks—it makes it difficult to sustain a site.
That’s where mobile meals come in. A quick search on Google reveals dozens of counties rolling out their own versions of food trucks and buses to feed hungry kids. The vehicles come in all different shapes, colors, and sizes, but they all aim to fill in that transportation gap by driving into hard-to-reach neighborhoods—or to easily accessible community areas like libraries and parks to deliver food.
Krey points out, for example, the “Sting Mobile” in Texas City. The school bus, named after their high school’s mascot, has been retrofitted to look like a restaurant, with tables and stools replacing bus seats. In the nearby La Vega district, refurbished vans carrying books and food take to the streets to keep kids both nourished and engaged.
And in the neighboring state of Colorado, a certain Lunch Lizard food truck has become very popular among the kids of rural Mesa County, where schools can have as many as 90 percent of kids qualifying for free and subsidized meals. The county initially kept schools open during the summer under a five-year grant, but when that ended last year, the community had to get creative.
The Western Colorado Community Foundation began experimenting with the food truck in 2015. On weekdays, a van decorated with colorful murals of the Colorado desert pulls up to parks, low-income apartment complexes, and mobile-home neighborhoods, drawing crowds of kids and families. During the seven-week pilot project, volunteers served more than 4,000 meals, says Jody Valente, a program associate at the foundation.
This year, the foundation is back with two vans and 12 different locations. They’re also partnering with seven different counties in western Colorado to launch similar programs. “A lot of the communities that these kids are in are kind of like islands,” Valente says. “There's a lot of extremely busy highways and not many sidewalks.”
Both Valente and Krey agree that food trucks aren’t necessarily the solution for all communities. “It’s all about having a menu of options,” Krey tells CityLab, “so that states and communities can look at what’s going to work best to make sure that most kids have access to food.” And that starts with doing the kind of research Krey and her team did in Texas—which she says should be replicable in any other state given the amount of data that’s publicly available.
With summer already in session for many states, keeping kids fed has become a national priority. “The other week, I walked down a street to let parents know about the [Lunch Lizard] program, and there were three little kids sitting on the front lawn eating a bag of Doritos and Cheezits,” recalls Valente. “That processed food that's really easy to buy—that's what we're fighting, as well.”