The Lansing School District has a high percentage of students who meet the federal poverty threshold. During the school year, thousands qualify for federal free and reduced lunches. But are they getting enough to eat when school is out for the summer? WKAR’s Kevin Lavery reports on one program that tries to fill that need.
On a hot summer day, a bus winds its way down Baker Street. This isn’t the mustard yellow carriage that appears every day to chauffer the neighborhood kids to that place that most have already blissfully forgotten. This bus is emblazoned with appetizing artistry. Colorfully painted fruits and vegetables catch the eye and water the mouth.
The driver pulls into Baker Donora Park. A few kids are playing kickball. Others are seated under a shady pavilion. One young man looks ready to get down to business.
Five-year-old Evan Hagen proudly gives his name.
“I like the slides, and when the food bus comes,” he explains. “(Because) they have different foods.”
The bus is operated by the YMCA of Lansing. It’s part of the Lansing School District’s “Meet Up and Eat Up” program. The food is supplied by Sodexho Magic, the contractor led by Lansing favorite son Earvin “Magic” Johnson.
From June to August, children can get free meals at some 60 sites in the Lansing area. Most are in community centers, churches and libraries. A few, like Baker Donora, are served by bus.
There’s two parts to these mobile visits. Before the bus arrives, YMCA staffers come ahead to lead the kids in outdoor games like the kickball match.
Then comes the meal.
Tara Barnhill is the mobile kitchen coordinator for YMCA. She says even though the program mainly serves Lansing students, adults are welcome to participate.
“So, as long as you’re with us during the 30 minutes of activity, you can get involved and then the 20 minutes of feeding,” Barnhill says. “Anybody can eat with us; we serve adults as well, as long as they’re with children.”
Barnhill lines the kids up for breakfast. Today’s options include banana bread, a muffin or a cereal bar, plus juice and milk.
Young Evan comes back to the pavilion to eat with his mom, Allison Brooks. She smiles as he eagerly drinks his milk. They’ve been coming here for a couple of summers now.
“It helps the kids in the neighborhood get meals during the week when they sometimes can’t get that,” says Brooks. “It’s very important. Not everybody can afford nutritious foods, so having this available to the kids for free is amazing.”
This is the fifth year for the YMCA’s Healthy Living Mobile Kitchen, as the bus is known. Over time, Barnhill and her staff have gotten to know many of the neighborhood kids. Some even work with them during the year as physical education instructors in the Lansing schools.
Kathy Kreimer recently moved from San Diego to be closer to her extended family, including her great-grandson. He’s here today, along with one of his friends.
Kreimer cuts a matronly figure whose care reaches deep into the neighborhood.
“Sometimes I come here with four or five different little kids in the neighborhood that I’ve picked up,” Kreimer says. “And I do worry about their food security. Now, mine may not have that as much as some of the others, but it’s a good little extra for him because he’s always been on the thin side. So, he’s getting a little extra and learning how to eat with other kids, which he hasn’t had.”
Tara Barnhill recognizes her goodwill mission, which today includes a quick behind the scenes tour of the food bus.
“What I really love to see is when they see a fruit or vegetable they’ve never even seen before and I can get them to try it and actually end up liking it,” Barnhill says. “So, I’d say success is just seeing the same faces every day and the kids getting excited to see us and having fun.”
Breakfast is over. Time to move on to the next stop. But the bus will be back on Baker Street in a few hours for lunch: chicken tacos with garbanzo beans.
That just might be a new one for the kids to try...and a fun little vocabulary word to help ward off the summer slide.