Grand Junction third-grade teacher Mike Frazer can relate to his students being hungry. “I grew up in the same atmosphere as a lot of my kids here,” says Frazer, a stocky, 30-something with glasses and wavy, reddish-brown hair held back with a black headband. When he was growing up, Frazer’s family relied on food stamps, the generosity of church groups, and food banks to get by. When he asks his students what they had for dinner, they often say “a bag of chips.”
“One thing that’s important, is not just food, but quality food which can be time consuming and expensive – a 99-cent cheeseburger versus 20 minutes cutting up a salad,” says Frazer.
Free and reduced meals offered during the school year help address the issue of child hunger. Summer food programs reach fewer kids – typically 500 versus 9,000 – meaning children return to school in the fall malnourished and unable to focus, say teachers. A loss of grant funding has reduced or eliminated summer food programs, prompting action from the Western Colorado Community Foundation (WCCF), a philanthropic nonprofit that serves seven Western Slope counties.
Nationally, 20 percent of children qualify for free or reduced USDA-funded lunches. In Mesa County, 42 percent of children are eligible for the federally-subsidized meals. “I am alarmed and appalled there is so much hunger in this community in 2015, in this rich nation,” says WCCF executive director Anne Wenzel. “We have a donor who passed away and left money for basic needs. What is more basic than hunger among children?”
Last spring, the Community Foundation provided $58,000 to purchase and retrofit a mobile food truck to deliver meals to low-income neighborhoods for seven weeks during the summer. Known as the “Lunch Lizard,” the colorful truck is decorated with golden desert scenes, including a green collared lizard clutching a red apple. “Food trucks are trendy,” points out WCCF’s Tedi Gillespie. “We wanted it to be attractive to kids, friendly, embraced by
Dan Sharp, director of food and nutrition services for Mesa County School District 51, was already on the foundation’s radar for his innovative efforts at changing the system by making lunches from scratch, using locally-sourced foods when available. Together, he and the community foundation researched mobile meal programs state- and nationwide. Sharp helped design and retrofit the Lunch Lizard, and mobilized school district staff and resources. The food, kitchen prep and two staff for the truck are funded through the USDA Summer Food Service program, which reimburses the school district for hot, nutritious meals made in a school kitchen and delivered to low-income areas.
Frazer volunteered as a neighborhood liaison during last summer’s pilot program. The Lunch Lizard delivered free meals four days a week to five different low-income neighborhoods in the Grand Valley.
The Lunch Lizard’s apples are grown locally at Bolton’s Orchards and Organic Whacky Apple in Hotchkiss. The organic tomatoes are from Breeden Farms. Pinto beans used in the tacos come from The Beanery in Delta. Sharp hopes to incorporate even more locally-grown foods.
Sunny Gonzales brought her daughter plus the five children she babysat last summer to the food truck where it stopped at her apartment complex. “They loved it,” Gonzales says. “Every day, I got begged ‘can we go? Is it time yet?’”
Rather than allow the truck to sit empty during the school year when free and reduced-cost meals are available at many schools, Sharp decided to take the Lunch Lizard to three public schools where hot lunches are not served.
On a recent warm fall day, the food truck pulls up to the Opportunity Center, a school for at-risk teenagers who have been expelled from other schools. Driver Marlea Kammers opens the side window where she places a bowl of apples and cut-up oranges while her assistant sets up a portable table where students help themselves to salsa, ranch dressing, napkins and utensils. Today’s menu includes the popular “Street Beef Tacos.” Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are also available for those who prefer the old standby. Fresh fruit and vegetables come with both meals. Offerings on other days include hot dogs and coleslaw, burgers and tossed salad, grilled cheese and steamed broccoli.
“They like broccoli, because they like the homemade ranch dressing. In fact, most of the food is made from scratch,” says Kammers. “There are no more chicken nuggets. We make roasted red potatoes instead of French fries. Teachers tell you [the students] are able to settle down better; they seem to focus and do better in school. We like to feed not just their bellies, but their souls as well.”
Sixty percent of Opportunity Center students qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches, says the school’s outreach achievement coordinator Mark Young. “The kids love it. I have kids who don’t have food at home.”
At R-5, another alternative high school where students work half the day, attend college classes or volunteer, 50 percent of the students qualify for free lunches. Seventeen-year-old Harley Gurule says she doesn’t bother with breakfast. Before the Lunch Lizard started delivering meals to R-5, she didn’t eat lunch either. Though she lives with her mother, they don’t share meals. “She takes care of her business, I take care of mine,” says the teenager. “I get hungry some days. It helps a lot having food. If I’m hungry all day, I won’t be thinking about anything but food. As long as it’s edible, I’ll eat it.”
Children line up eagerly when the Lunch Lizard arrives at the elementary school. “I’ll take a taco, salad and apple,” pipes up a third-grader standing behind several students lined up at the truck window. “I want green eggs and ham,” quips another boy.
The foundation is already fundraising for a second truck for the summer program because one truck can’t serve all the needy areas.
“A well-balanced meal is something a lot of people take for granted,” says Frazer. “The consistency of the truck is great. [A meal] is one less thing the kids have to worry about. If I’m struggling with a student’s behavioral issues, the first thing I ask is ‘when was the last time you ate?’”