Patrick White 0000-00-00 00:00:00
On the Road Again Vehicles provide flexibility as mobile serving centers for school nutrition operations. The ever-increasing popularity of online sales has proven that traditional “brick-and-mortar” buildings—aka “stores”—aren’t the only way to attract and serve customers. A somewhat analogous development is taking place in food service, where mobile food trucks are giving competition to building bound quick-serve restaurants. And this trend is rolling through school districts, as well. A number of school nutrition directors are discovering that moving outside the box—and the building—nets great results when it comes to serving children. Using a variety of vehicles, these operators have created mobile serving centers to bring food to children during summer and other non-school-day meal opportunities. Hitting the road is helping them reach hungry children. Salida (Calif.) Union School District Child Nutrition Services Director Billy Reid was a fan of the sci-fi TV show “Thunderbirds” when he was a child. So, two years ago when the district received a donated RV for use as a mobile serving center and a subsequent grant to install a colorful “vehicle wrap,” he flagged the RV as “Mobile Wellness Command Center—Nutrition Transport #1.” It’s a fun name, and Reid says that’s important when attracting the attention of children in the community.Indeed, use of an RV rather than a more conventional vehicle helps generate interest, he contends. “The RV is cool. If you pull up in a box truck, kids are going to wonder if you’re delivering a couch,” jokes Reid. “I try to make sure that everything I do is directed toward children—they’re the ones we’re serving.” Much of the interior of the RV was removed to provide adequate space for food transport equipment. “During the summer, we use the RV to go to mobile sites and feed outside of churches and at other sites,” says Reid. “At this point, we can only do cold foods—sandwiches, vegetables,fruit, milk and that sort of thing—and we needed room for ice chests to fi t in there.” Hot breakfast and lunch are offered at the district’s four school sites, but the RV does provide Salida’s child nutrition team with the ability to reach more children with nutritious foods. “We also can direct people from the mobile RV feeding site to the schools if they want a hot lunch,” Reid adds. In that sense, the eye-catching RV has proven very valuable in getting the word out about the availability of these meals, he reports. Reid notes that he briefly considered offering hot foods from the RV, but decided it would be too much of a challenge, given food safety regulations. Additionally, he feared that trying to fi t in warmers and other heating equipment would have taken up so much space that it would have limited other potential uses of the vehicle. For example, while the food is transported in the RV and served to children just outside of the vehicle, “We intend to convert the interior of the RV so that we can actually feed children inside; it has air conditioning and a bathroom,” he explains. “We could have the ability to seat 16 children in there.” Adding the seating could allow the RV to serve a dual purpose, Reid adds: During the school year, it could be used as a mobile nutrition education center. “We could travel from school to school . . . Park it outside and use it as a really cool-looking nutrition education classroom.” A sound system already has been installed to play attention-grabbing music,Recalls Chef Timothy Cipriano, executive director, New Haven School Food. “She said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we had something like an ice cream truck that we could just drive around and feed kids from during the summer?’” Cipriano didn’t waste any time seeking funding sources, and some 18 months later, with the assistance of a grant from the United Way of Greater New Haven, the operation was able to purchase a vehicle from a local dealer. “It looks like a typical food truck,” he says. “We selected a used truck and worked with a local sign company “just like the ice cream man,” says Reid. “It gets the kids running out, thinking it’s the ice cream man, but we’re handing out broccoli and carrots and turkey sandwiches.” Only one staff member is needed to drive and serve food from the RV. “But some routes are a little busier than others, so we sometimes send two people—one person driving and serving, and the other person keeping track of the meal count and the paperwork,” he explains. At four schools and from four mobile sites, the Salida child nutrition team served more than 47,000 meals over the course of eight weeks last summer. That’s up 15,000 meals from the year before, and Reid expects another increase next summer. “The RV gets us into little pockets of the community where there is a need—it gives us more accessibility,” he says. New Haven (Conn.) Public Schools It’s always rewarding to see a great idea come to fruition. That’s what happened when this district’s school nutrition operation purchased a truck to serve children during the summer months. “One of my cafeteria managers, Aisha Flynn, came up with the idea at one of our managers’ meetings,”to ‘wrap’ it and make it look cool.” The truck arrived onsite last year, midway through the summer. That gave the team enough time to decorate the outside but not enough to customize the interior. “When we got the funding and got the truck, we just wanted to get it out on the road as quickly as possible,” explains Cipriano. “We didn’t want it to sit in the shop for eight weeks during the summer, when we should be out feeding kids.” That sense of urgency paid off: The child nutrition team’s truck served some 17,000 meals in a single month! “The inside is still pretty bare right now,” Cipriano concedes. “We operated with coolers and ice packs last summer. But we’re working with a local shop right now to get it outfitted with a generator, electrical outlets, a propane tank and refrigeration. So, next summer we’ll really be up and going. All of the companies we’ve worked with have been great about working with us and not charging us extra,” he credits. Overall, the first summer was a learning experience, recounts Cipriano. The mobile feeding sites were chosen based on need.“We set up the truck to go to parking lots at schools that were not open for summer feeding,” he explains. “In hindsight, we Probably wouldn’t have chosen school sites, because it’s harder to get kids to go to those sites during the summer. We really need to go to the parking lots and housing developments in those areas and literally bring the food right to them.” Cipriano cautions that all feeding sites must be approved. “And you can’t just arbitrarily switch all the time,” he adds. “You have to go through the state to get sites approved.” To help make their first summer serving from the truck as easy as possible, menu choices were limited. “We passed out cold milk, fresh fruit and sandwiches, as well as salads,” details Cipriano. “We wanted to keep it simple and easy for the kids, as well as the staff.” The truck was loaded with as much food as possible to avoid running out; occasionally, however, a second vehicle would be sent out from the central kitchen with additional menu items in order to re-stock the food truck between stops. “That was great, because it was a sign that we Were really busy,” he emphasizes. Two staff members were needed to drive the truck and distribute food at the stops. The food truck that the New Haven team purchased did not originally feature a serving window, so the staff simply served children from the back of the truck. “They would pass out the food and talk with the kids—it was really informal,” says Cipriano.Since, a window has been installed on the side of the truck, so, in the future, the serving line will form there. Cipriano emphasizes how much support and cooperation the school nutrition team has received from individuals, groups and government agencies wanting to support the mobile feeding mission. For example, Cipriano says that the City of New Haven was very cooperative and helped save both time and expense. “They just slapped a city license plate on the truck,” forgoing the traditional registration process, he recounts,adding, “I would advise anyone interested in doing this to go to the town or city [government] and explain what you’re trying to do and fi nd ways to partner with them.” The district also partnered with End Hunger Connecticut!, a local hunger organization, which provided grant money that helped to purchase bikes, iPods and computers that were given away via raffle in a promotion to encourage participation.“Every child who took a meal got a raffle ticket, and then we drew a number of winners at the end of the summer,” explains Cipriano. And a local bakery provided loaves of bread. “Every kid who received a meal also got a loaf of fresh-baked bread, if they wanted to take one home with them,” he details. “This extra incentive encouraged even more kids to participate.” The first job for Cipriano’s team, however, was simply to spread the word about the availability of summer meals via the truck.It’s one thing to post notices at schools, churches, etc., to let people know that a building will serve as a summer feeding site.But it’s a little trickier to get the word out about a mobile feeding site. The first step was to issue a press release. “Because it’s such a unique thing, we got a ton of press, from newspapers, television and radio,” relates Cipriano. The team also contacted a local radio station with a diverse listening audience, and the station agreed to put together a public service announcement, which ran every day throughout the summer.A local billboard company also donated promotional space on a digital display. The truck itself served as an important advertising vehicle (no pun intended).“When the truck drives by, everyone waves,” reports Cipriano. “The truck really stands out. We borrowed the colors from the Connecticut No Kid Hungry program, which had developed materials to promote the free summer meals program. That way, the truck not only represented the district, but also the whole statewide program.” No matter what vehicle you’re using, you want to make sure it’s a mobile billboard, advises Cipriano. It helps to work with a graphic designer to come up with a design that includes all of the critical information, easily read, right on the truck. “You want the details, but you need to keep it simple, so people can understand it when they see it Drive by. And you want it fl ashy enough to capture their attention.” Cipriano currently is working with the local United Way for funding to provide meals on weekends using the truck. And he’s also looking to expand the number of mobile serving sites through a small fleet of vehicles. “The plan for the future is to get another truck, similar to the one we have now, and then a third truck that has a full kitchen with equipment that will allow us to feed kids hot meals, as well as a different variety of foods,” he explains. “Then, I’d like to have a special truck with a salad bar. Plus, having four trucks would allow us to split up the city into quadrants, and we would be able to feed more kids. If we could do almost 20,000 meals in a month with one truck, we could do 80,000 meals with four trucks—or more. That’s so many more kids we can ensure don’t go hungry over the summer.” Burke County (Ga.) Public Schools Several years ago, when considering her options for mobile serving vehicles to reach and feed children during the summer, School Nutrition Program Director Donna Martin, SNS, turned to a somewhat obvious, but overlooked, alternative: school buses.After all, plenty of buses are available during the summer months, and they offer the size and seating to both transport food and accommodate hungry children while they are eating. In the summer, the school nutrition department distributes 3,000 meals each day all around the county, so Martin and her team rely on a fleet of 16 buses. When the bus arrives at a site, students board, eat the meal and then get off to return to their summertime activities. “The buses really work quite well for this purpose,” Martin says of the ability to offer mobile service during the summer. But Martin and her team have gone mobile during the school year, too. Recently, Burke County’s school nutrition department began serving 500 meals each day for a supper program. This required a completely different mobile solution, so the district recently purchased a vehicle designed especially for the job. “We just bought a really, really cool hot/cold truck,” raves Martin. “One side is for hot food, and one Side is for cold food. We just slide the serving pans right in. It’s just wonderful.” There’s even a special compartment on the cold side designed to hold crates of milk cartons. Based on the recommendations of other school nutrition directors, Martin researched and eventually purchased a truck from Hot Shot Trucks (www.hotshotdelivers.com), which specializes in custom vehicles for catering services and food delivery—including such programs as Meals on Wheels. The new truck transports the supper meals to four different school sites each evening, but these are served to students in the cafeteria using the normal serving lines. The truck accommodates standard-size steamtable pans, so there was no extra kitchen equipment to buy. “You can put 2-, 4- and 6-in.Pans in there, and the dimensions are the same that we use on our serving lines,” Martin explains. “I had been thinking about a van or something like that, but when I heard about the Hot Shot trucks, I realized that was perfect for what we were looking for,” she recounts. In addition to delivering food for the supper program, she’s also found another use for the truck during the day: It is now being used to satellite meals to an alternative school in the district that has no cafeteria facility. Martin says the special design of the truck allows it to carry a much wider variety of food than the buses she uses during the summer. “You couldn’t begin to transport these types of foods on a bus—the meals would slosh all over the place,” she says.“On the bus [for the summer program], we’re just doing sandwiches, juice, milk— things like that. On the truck, we’re doing things like lasagna and green beans, which could be messy.” Especially for the supper program, the food truck has proven useful because it can carry not only the food but also up to four people, so the serving staff rides right along With the food to each site. “It’s a four-door cab, so we can put the employees in the back seat,” Martin explains. She was able to customize the graphics on the truck to help promote the school nutrition program in the district. With a bear as the district’s mascot, Martin laughingly reports that the truck’s signage says, “‘Please Don’t Feed the Bears—That’s Our Job.’ It’s really cute and gets a lot of attention.” Patrick White is a freelance writer in Middlesex, Vt., and a former assistant editor of this publication.
Published by School Nutrition Association. View All Articles.
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