New food trucks rolling down St. Louis streets this summer are not selling tacos or burgers, but instead are bringing free meals to hungry kids.
The trucks are part of local food bank Operation Food Search's efforts to "fill the gap" in access to free and nutritious meals that many kids experience when school's out, through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Summer Food Service Program.
"During the school year, if you're eligible for free or reduced lunch or breakfast, in theory you have access to 10 meals a week," said Susan Gregory, director of policy and advocacy. "When the last bell rings at the end of the school year, those meals disappear, so this program is designed to help those families with just that little bit that they need."
Gregory said, in some cases, the program provides the only meal a child will eat all day, and that a "lack of access to healthy nutritious food impacts all types of development" in young people. The summer assistance also helps families in which parents work several jobs or those whose electricity or grocery budgets go up in the summer while kids are out of school.
Typically, the federal program's meals are distributed to children at specific community sites, such as a church or a library. But after several years sponsoring the program locally, Gregory said Operation Food Search found it wasn't reaching as many children in the St. Louis area who were eligible for the meals as it could be.
A recent study from the Food Research and Action Center found that about 13 percent of Missouri children who are eligible for summer meals accessed them.
Gregory said reasons for that low percentage include a lack of transportation to traditional sites and few local organizations with space to host the program. The pilot mobile truck program, she said, allows Operation Food Search to deliver the meals "to the kids where they are."
"If we can break down some of those barriers and bring food to where kids naturally congregate, then that's a way that we're able to include them," she said. "It's really changing the paradigm and saying, 'Well, if we go to where the kids are versus having them come to us, are we able to move that needle tip towards ending hunger?'"
The bright blue mobile food trucks, with their upbeat music playing out loud, currently serve about 400 kids a day, rain or shine, at 16 parks, lots and other sites throughout the area, from Jennings and Wellston to south St. Louis.
Gregory said any child can come to get a daily meal from the trucks — a "great equalizer" and a sign of respect and commitment.
"You know we're not asking for enrollment forms or those kinds of things — we're just coming with food," she said. "I think the biggest part is that we just show up every day. Connecting children to that food is beyond just putting a meal out there; it's really making an investment."
By going into neighborhoods, Gregory said the trucks are helping Operation Food Search build relationships with people and organizations dedicated to helping local kids.
Another benefit of the trucks is flexibility: the organization can adjust where it stops and what time meals are served.
"For kids who may have access to that breakfast or lunch, but may need a little more in the afternoon or for those teenagers who like to sleep in a little bit, you know they have access to a meal later in the day," she said.
Gregory said the response to the mobile trucks so far has been positive, and Operation Food Search will review the pilot program before the trucks go out again next summer.
In the meantime, she said the summer meals delivered by truck will help the children stay kids.
"I watch these kids come together and eat and enjoy themselves, but then run off and get on to the swing sets," she said. "They enjoy the food, they like the food, but it's a means to an end: to get back to playing."
Find A Mobile Truck Stop
People may get more information about the truck stops at the program's website or texting the word "food" to 877-877 for the USDA's national hunger hotline to find the three closest summer meal sites.
The mobile food trucks go to the following sites through the day:
- University Commons, 900 Westgate Ave., University City
- Wellston Place, 1500 Wellson Place, Wellston
- Primm Place, 9800 Chicago Heights Blvd., Olivette
- Spanish Cove Townhomes, 1784 San Remo Ct., St. Louis
- Glasgow Village, 335 Shepley Dr., Glasgow Village
- Laurel Park Apartments, 9605 Jacobi Ave., St. Louis
- Glen Owen Green, 9556 Glen Owen Dr., St. Louis
- Castle Point Park, 2465 Baroness Dr., St. Louis
- Gregory J. Carter Park, 5800 Lillian Ave., St. Louis
- Fox Manor Apartments, 4725 S. Spring Ave., St. Louis
- Salvation Army Arsenal, 2740 Arsenal St., St. Louis
- Amberg Park, 3800 Gustine Ave., St. Louis
- Mount Pleasant Park, 4506 E Michigan Ave., St. Louis
- Carondelet Triangle, 6408 Michigan Ave., St. Louis
- Old Lyon School, 7400 Vermont Ave., St. Louis
- Love Bank Park, corner of Nebraska Avenue and Cherokee Street
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