Henry County Public Schools has given the concept of “meals on wheels” a fresh, new look. This summer, the division introduced its Kid’s Café, an old school bus that has been converted to a mobile cafeteria, bringing hot meals to area children throughout the summer.
Like many, the project was set to begin several years ago but was paused as the COVID-19 pandemic caused a nationwide shutdown, said Director of School Nutrition Marci Lexa, as she stood on a gravel road on Hephill Drive in Bassett Wednesday, awaiting the bus at its first stop of the day.
“When it started to look like things were going to open up again this summer and we weren’t going to be able to give grab and go (meals) anymore, then we started looking around for grants” to finish the project, she said.
During the pandemic, restrictions for the summer feeding program eased, no longer requiring meals to be consumed on-site. That restriction has returned for this summer.
Eventually, the division received funding from the nonprofit Share Our Strength through its No Kid Hungry program.
The bus was painted, air conditioning was installed, and the students at the Career Academy turned the bus seats into booth seating and installed tabletops. The Kid’s Café was ready to roll.
Lexa said county students who choose to eat the café meals will recognize much of the food they receive.
“It’s a lot of the same products” used in regular school year lunches, she said. “We do like to send out hot meals. The kids prefer hot meals. They’re not crazy about deli meals. The only deli meals that we do are what we pack for the sites that are open on Fridays if they don’t have the capacity to heat their own meals.”
She said two production kitchens—one at Bassett and one at Laurel Park—provide the meals for the various meal sites during the summer. On Wednesday, the bus was traveling to the site from Bassett, where bus driver Jennifer Adams and food service staff Joan Cardarelli picked up the day’s meal of roasted turkey and gravy, mashed potatoes, rolls, a fruit cup, and milk.
The cost of the food for meals served to children is reimbursed by the USDA, Lexa said. “We turn in meals served, and we only get reimbursed for meals served to students.”
That does not mean adults cannot enjoy a meal as well, however. Anyone over 18 may purchase a meal for just $3.
Lexa said the division began doing mobile food service 5 or 6 years ago, “but the way we did it was one of our people used their personal vehicle, they drove up to a site like this, they opened the back hatch, they took a tarp and put it on the ground, preferably in the shade.”
A folding table was set up on the tarp, and children could enjoy a free meal at an official meals site.
“We wanted to get them up off the ground and into a cool environment to eat their meal while they would still be on-site,” Lexa said.
The Kid’s Café stops were chosen because, historically, the locations have high populations of children. However, as the bus has started its first summer tour, Lexa found that populations have changed over the years of the pandemic.
One current stop in Collinsville previously had 90 children living nearby. Now, Lexa said, there are only 27.
The Hephill Drive site has a higher density of young people. As the bus turned the corner and backed into its spot, three children on bikes rode up eagerly with an adult following behind.
They climbed onto the bus, a cool blast of air conditioning inside warding off the oppressive summer heat, and took a table at the back, looking out one of the windows that are adorned with a green and white checked curtain.
Cardarelli walked to the table and chatted with the group for a moment before returning to the front of the bus to load up servings of the day’s meal.
Two of the boys, Elijah Goad and Harrison Whorley, had dined in the Café before, but today they brought a friend with them who had not eaten at the mobile site before. Vickie Whorley chatted happy with the youngsters, helping them open their meals that were securely bundled in plastic bags.
Even though the county offers free meals for children during summer school and at a number of sites around the county during the summer months, Lexa believes having a mobile site come to the students is still necessary.
“A lot of these areas (the Café comes to) have single-income families, and one mode of transportation that is used for that single-income job. It’s not there during the day, so they can’t go anywhere. They also have so much less income that the kids are not going to be sent to a daycare or anywhere where meals are being served. So, these are the kids that fall between the cracks. They’re not at one of the schools, they’re not at a daycare, they have no way to get anywhere to pick up the meals, and that’s why we bring meals to them.”
Of course, any restaurant is only as good as its food, and the Kid’s Café got a rave review from young Elijah that morning.
“That turkey’s good!” he exclaimed. Beneath the curtained bus window in the cool air conditioning, he dove in for another bite.
The Kid’s Café runs Mondays through Thursdays during the summer. The current schedule is:
10:50-11:15 a.m. at 130 Hephill Drive, Bassett
11:40 AM-12:15 p.m. at 25 Brookshire Lane, Bassett
12:20-1 p.m. at 3517 Blackberry Park Circle, Bassett
2-2:45 p.m. at Conestoga Court, Collinsville
3-4:20 p.m. at 125 Ridgecrest Ave, Collinsville
All children under the age of 18 may receive a free meal. Meals for anyone over the age of 18 are $3. All meals must be consumed at the Kid’s Café.
For more information about the county’s summer meals sites, visit www.henry.k12.va.us.