There were reportedly 32,910 children in Delaware who suffered from food insecurity. To combat that, school districts across the state are feeding children for free during the summer.

In the Dover area, a school bus has been transformed into a mobile cafeteria. It’s serving free lunches to any child age 18 or younger this summer. 

The Caesar Rodney School District food bus is an example of how school districts throughout the state are finding ways to feed poor students during the summer - a season when kids across the country risk going hungry.

Delaware was home to 32,910 children who suffered from food insecurity in 2015, according to the most recent statistics from Feeding America. Food insecurity is defined as lacking access to enough food for an active, healthy life.

That’s more than half the 62,576 children in the state who relied on the National School Lunch Program for the 2015-2016 school year, according to the Food Research and Action Center.

New Castle County led the way with 18,360 children, followed by Sussex County with 7,370 and Kent County with 7,180.

Jennifer Montano, registered dietitian at CR, said eating nutritious food isn’t just important for survival, but it also helps young people’s brain cells to properly develop.

“It’s just like a car,” Montano said. “You need good gas to get your car up and running correctly - especially with children, because they’re still growing.”

Helping homeless kids 

Althea Nixon said her 8-year-old son enjoys eating on CR’s food bus, which offers items ranging from chocolate milk and cold sandwiches to Papa John’s pizza.

“For someone who’s in a bad situation like I am, we’re living in a shelter right now,” said Nixon, who lives in The Shepherd Place in Dover with her son, after getting evicted from her previous residence in late April.

CR’s food bus, now in its first year, is equipped with essentially everything a school cafeteria has, without the kitchen. It’s been renovated with cafeteria-style tables for seats to accommodate 25 kids. There are also compartments on the bus for keeping food warm or cold.

There are more than a dozen meal sites where food will be offered on weekdays this summer through CR’s district, until Aug. 11. Some locations will be open for a week, while others will be open longer.

Through Aug. 11, lunch will be served Monday through Friday at bus stops at Clearfield apartment complex, W.R. Brown Elementary, The Shepherd Place, Trinity Wesleyan Church and Brecknock County Park.

The food bus spends 30 minutes at each stop and any child age 18 or younger can climb aboard for a free lunch.

No simple task

Paul Rodgers, child nutrition supervisor at CR, said it’s a big undertaking feeding students with the food bus. It requires lots of time to plan diverse meals for kids to enjoy. CR also has pay staffers to prepare the food, gas to fuel the bus and an operator to drive it. The bus alone is roughly $20,000, including all of its renovations.

Additionally, Rodgers said, much thought goes into deciding where meal sites should be set up, because bringing too many meals to a location with poor attendance can be costly. In general, the idea for selecting a meal site is to have them at places in or near low-income communities where lots of kids are.

Trying to select meal locations that will deliver a strong turnout is a guessing game, Rodgers said. 

Scott Schuster, nutrition outreach specialist for Colonial School District, said his district eliminated one of its four meal sites this summer, due to poor attendance.

“We went there for five days and we only had one person come outside when we were at the Galloway apartment complex,” Schuster said. “We were really disappointed.”

Part of the same program as CR, Colonial has two “Care-A-Vans” it uses to deliver meals to children.

Relying on national program

The Summer Food Service Program is run by the Food and Nutrition Service within the United States Department of Agriculture. There are sponsors, which can be school districts, churches and nonprofit organizations. The state Department of Education oversees the program in Delaware.

Aimee Beam, Department of Education education associate, said sponsors must establish meal sites near a school that has at least a 50-percent free and reduced school meal population.

USDA reimburses each sponsor $3.83 per lunch served, $2.18 for breakfast and 90 cents per snack.

Schuster said Colonial is in its third summer delivering meals and served 23,400 meals last year.

Since some school districts offer breakfast and/or lunch, USDA rules say all breakfasts must include a fruit, grain and milk. All lunches must include a grain, meat or meat alternate, two fruits and/or vegetables and milk.

Paula Angelucci, supervisor of nutrition services at Colonial, said though participation among her students is good this year, it’s still not what it could be. Their efforts to let as many people as possible know about the program could be working better

“We have made pamphlets, we’ve done robocalls to our families [in the district],” said Angelucci, who promotes the program on the district’s social media platforms. “But it seems as though people say, ‘Oh, this is great. I didn’t know you had this going on.’”

Beam said she agrees more students could benefit.

“Unfortunately, we only reach a small number of children during the summer months,” Beam said. She explained part of the reason is that some parents working during the day don’t feel comfortable with their children at meal sites alone.

She said that some kids go out of town during the summer. And the Department of Social Services offers a summer EBT program where families can get additional funds on their EBT cards.

“If a family is taking advantage of that, perhaps they might not need to go to as many summer meal sites as maybe they have in the past,” Beam said.

More than 720,000 meals, Beam said, were served last summer statewide across an estimated 370 sites. More than a dozen districts offer mobile meals by way of food trucks, buses or caravans.

Signs of success

William Mengel, supervisor of nutrition services at Seaford School District, said word of mouth is the best way to promote the meals. Seaford has nine sites and uses a $150,000 food truck to transport food, along with a van.

Seaford launched its food truck last year and delivered 5,800 meals, Mendel said. Over time, more people in the community will catch on to what his district is doing, like they have been this summer, he said.

Participation has already been promising enough for this summer that the district plans to buy another food truck, at around $150,000, from its reserve fund.

“We’re picking up our numbers and have great success so far,” Mendel said. “We’re hoping to do 20,000-plus meals this year.”

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Sites in Dover and Camden:

Manchester Square Stevenson Drive  Church of the Body of Christ 764 Townsend Blvd.  Farmers Market 126 West Loockerman St.  Senate View 430 New Castle Ave. John Wesley Community Center 211 West Division St.  East Dover Elementary School 852 South Little Creek Rd. Dover Community Center 744 River Rd. Kent Secondary Intensive Learning Center 631 Ridgley St.  William Henry Middle School 65 Carver Rd.  Booker T. Washington Elementary 901 Forest St.  Persimmon Tree Circle East 110 Persimmon Tree Circle  South Elementary School 955 South State St.  Frontline Ministries 104 Saulsbury Rd. (Academy of Dover Building)  Whatcoat Summer Camp 341 Saulsbury Rd.  Simon Circle Building 375 Simon Circle  DSU City of Dover Lab School 1200 North Dupont Highway Gym Starz 155 Commerce Way  Dover YMCA II Camp Voyager 825 Kenton Rd.  City of Dover 10 Electric Ave.  Trinity Church 1564 South State St. The Shepherds Place 1362 South Governors Ave.  W. Reily Brown Elementary School 360 Webbs Lane  DTCC Terry Campus Summer Camp 100 Campus Drive  Dover High School 1 Dover High Drive  Brecknock County Park 80 Old Camden Rd. Camden