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In Indy, Buses Aren't Just For Taking Kids To School Anymore

Jimmy Jenkins
Indiana Public Broadcasting

As the school year begins, students are already facing a lot of expectations such as performing well on state assessments and meeting the state’s learning benchmarks.

But before a child can do any of those things well, basic needs, including getting enough food to eat, must be met. One Indianapolis school district is making food security a priority – and not just during the school year, but year-round.

It’s the typical lunchtime scene that plays out everyday in cafeterias– the lunch ladies are organizing cartons of milk, the scent of ammonia and bleach used to sanitize counters and table tops are in the air, and kids are refusing to try their carrots. 

The only difference between every other cafeteria and this one, is that this lunchroom doesn’t stay in one place.

The Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township launched its mobile bus café this summer, bringing students in the area free breakfasts and lunches everyday.

The concept of delivering lunches during the summer to students who need them is not new.  The federal program that reimburses schools for free and reduced price lunches during the school year also sponsors a summer food service program. But in most other school districts, volunteers or school officials take a box of bagged lunches to summer camps or neighborhoods. In Wayne Township, they bring the entire cafeteria.

“You walk in here and once you sit down you almost feel like you’re in a pretty traditional lunchroom," says Wayne Township Superintendent Jeff Butts. "It’s the same kind of a countertop and the same kind of a bus seat you would see in a cafeteria table.”

Butts explains the bus also has air conditioning, a built-in cooler to store the food and employees to help distribute the meals.

The cost of providing these meals doesn’t fall on the district– the federal government reimburses them for each meal as part of the free and reduced price lunch program.

One of the first stops on today’s route is a mobile home park outside of Indianapolis. The bus sits in the parking lot outside the clubhouse for 30 minutes. During that time, Loretta Fleming walks her two daughters and their cousins to the bus so they can get lunch, something she says they look forward to everyday.

"The kids call it the party bus," Fleming laughs. "The kids love it. They think it’s really cool."

Fleming’s kids qualified for free and reduced price lunch when she lost her job more than a year ago, so she understands having to rely on the school for steady, nutritious meals.

As for the summer program, Fleming says not only does it help families who depend on meals during the year. It also gives the kids consistency.

"It’s kind of like they get to have lunch like they do with their friends, so they’re still meeting up with their friends every day at the same time, just like they did in school, so that part’s really cool too because they might not see their friends otherwise," she says.

Almost 80-percent of Wayne Township’s students qualify for free and reduced price lunches, which is why Butts and other district leaders wanted to find a way to provide meals for more kids this summer.

The district’s two refurbished buses traveled to 24 sites and delivered around 90,000 meals this summer, and the sites were chosen based on the highest concentration of students who get free and reduced price lunches during the school year.

Butts says having the bus travel to more places and see more kids during the summer helps establish the school within a child’s community.

"It’s very important as a community that we all work together, that we’re partnering together," he says.

Natalie Heslar is the district’s assistant child nutrition director, and she says a summer of food security for the students will help them now that they’re back in the classroom.

"They focus better, they’re well behaved, more so than they would if they didn’t get a meal," Heslar says. "There’s all kinds of research that proves kids will succeed better in life and in school, academically and physically."

And many of the kids eating on the bus say it’s much better eating on the bus than at home.