Maggie Den Harder is an intern with Oklahoma Policy Institute and a Masters of Public Administration student at the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa.
For Oklahoma families who are food-insecure, school meals can be a lifeline. Six in ten students qualify for free or reduced-cost meals at school. These meals offer solid nutrition while alleviating tight household budgets. But hunger doesn’t take a vacation during summer break, and although federal summer meal programs are available, participation in Oklahoma lags badly. However, some Oklahoma school districts have found success by building on a new distribution model: food trucks.
Mobile summer meal delivery isn’t a new concept, but it’s one that’s growing. In Alabama, Mobile County Schools has converted four buses to food trucks with an eat-in area so students can eat in air conditioning. In San Marcos, Texas, the district converted a bus that delivers lunch food to high-need areas. School districts in Delaware, Florida, and Connecticut successfully used food trucks to distribute food to students over the summer, too. With the help of local community partners like food banks and libraries, more students across the nation are gaining access to schools meals during the summer months.
Two schools in Oklahoma recognized the need to think outside the box when it came to summer food distribution and also adopted mobile distribution models. In 2016, El Reno converted a district van to a food truck. The truck, called “Fast Trax,” is used during summer months to distribute food to five different high-need areas of the El Reno school district. Last summer alone, El Reno served 300 students over 8,000 meals during the summer months, and district Nutrition Director Jeff Edwards reported they were able to double the amount of summer meals served with the help of their food truck.
The truck’s first summer was such a success that El Reno is expanding their meal service sites and building a food trailer to serve even more students. The new trailer will have an awning to provide plenty of shade, serve hot and cold meals, and will be located at a popular local park. To ensure students have enough to eat on summer weekends when the food truck and trailer are not running, El Reno School District has partnered with the Oklahoma Food Bank so children can grab backpacks with non-perishable food items.
Broken Arrow purchased a food truck in 2016 to provide summer meals in three different high-need areas of its district. In summer of 2016, Broken Arrow served 9,220 breakfast meals and 23,630 lunches during the summer months. Of those 23,630 lunches, 4,510 were distributed with the food truck. Between 2015 and 2016, Broken Arrow added five additional summer food distribution sites and were able to increase summer 2016 breakfast distribution by nearly 40 percent and lunch distribution by 62 percent. Broken Arrow’s food distribution sites will stay the same for now, but given the draw and availability of the food truck, it is likely more students will enjoy food in the coming summer months. And during the school year, the truck acts as an additional lunch line, helping to feed the district Senior High School’s 3,700 students.
With their food trucks, El Reno and Broken Arrow can ensure hungry children in their districts are getting food during the summer months. In this way, they not only help address distribution and hunger issues, but also some of the many issues accompanying food insecurity. Lack of proper childhood nutrition can bring a range of physical and behavioral challenges, and food insecurity can be a source of family stress. By expanding access to summer meals, Oklahoma districts enable beneficial development in children while helping create strong families – and a stronger Oklahoma.