Appetites: Food truck helps keep Minnesota kids fed when school is out

St. Paul Public Schools has a food truck to get meals to students
St. Paul Public Schools uses a food truck to get nutritious meals out to students when school is out. Nearly 70 percent of students in the district qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, suggesting their parents also struggle to afford food when school is out.
Megan Burks | MPR News

The food truck trend has reached St. Paul Public Schools. The district is using a truck that would feel right at home outside of a brewery to bring healthy breakfasts and lunches to kids at apartment buildings and city parks all summer long.

The goal is to keep kids fed when school is out, especially the nearly 26,000 students whose family incomes qualify them for free or reduced-price lunch.

"There's a nutritional gap that can happen in the summer," said Jill Westlund, a nutrition coordinator for the district. "Speaking from my own experience with my kids, if they were left to their own devices and not offered anything else, they would just eat noodles and crackers all day."

Instead, any child 18 years old and younger can get a balanced meal at one of the 11 truck stops — no questions asked and no registration required.

On a recent morning, kids ran from a splash pad at Lewis Park and zoomed down sidewalks on scooters to line up for breakfast. Parents with younger children walked over from apartments in an adjacent building, as staff unloaded Hula Hoops and sidewalk chalk and cued up a "Top 40" playlist.

"The clean version. Always the clean version," nutrition services supervisor Erin George said as she unpacked trays of food prepackaged earlier that morning at a facility on Como Avenue.

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St. Paul Public Schools has a food truck to get meals to students
Erin George, St. Paul Public Schools nutrition services supervisor, hands a breakfast tray to a boy at Lewis Park in St. Paul on Tuesday.
Megan Burks | MPR News

"It's similar to when you think about an ice cream truck rolling down the street and playing music, and everybody chases after it," Westlund said. "We're trying to do the same thing, just with different food. We can't give them ice cream, unfortunately."

On this morning, kids could choose between an oat bar or yogurt, both rounded out with sliced apples, juice, and cheese. The afternoon menu would include "munchables" — balanced snack boxes similar to what you'd find at a chain coffee shop — and club sandwiches.

The meals are funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and must meet the same nutritional standards set for meals served in school cafeterias.

Stacy Davis, a day care provider and grandmother, wheeled her young grandchildren to the truck in a red wagon.

"A lot of neighborhood kids come around here, so it's good for the summertime to get them fed and keep them going," she said. "It's less money out of their pockets and it helps out people with low incomes."

Davis said the extra help for breakfast and lunch helps parents afford healthier meals for dinner.

Another added benefit: the truck gets people outside. Ashley Young watches her young cousins during the summer and said that if it weren't for the truck, they'd eat sandwiches and keep playing inside.

In addition to the food truck route, St. Paul Public Schools offers meals at 75 brick-and-mortar sites. Many of them are located in parks, through a partnership with St. Paul Parks and Recreation.

Districts across the state offer similar summer meal programs. Find them via a mobile app called "Summer Eats Minnesota," by calling 211, or by texting "summer meals" to 97779.