A Hillsboro City Schools program established two years ago to make sure kids have healthy food to eat during the summer months was highlighted in a recent issue of the Ohio School Boards Association (OSBA) Journal magazine, a statewide publication.
The magazine featured the district’s HSC Tomahawk food truck project. Led by Jessica Walker, Hillsboro schools’ food service director, the HSC Tomahawk was named the Children’s Hunger Alliance’s 2018 Summer Nutrition Program of the year.
During the summer of 2018, the program served 22,026 meals at 12 sites for 50 days — an average of 441 meals per day. The program is supported by the federal Summer Meal Programs, which is administered by the Ohio Department of Education.
The Journal is a bimonthly publication featuring OSBA activities and articles of interest to Ohio’s public education leaders. The nearly 6,500 Journal subscribers include school board members, superintendents, treasurers, business officials, legislators, universities and libraries.
Editor’s Note — The following story, written by Jessica Walker, is reprinted with permission from the February 2019 Ohio School Boards Association Journal Magazine, copyright 2019, and Gary Motz, senior editorial manager, Ohio School Boards Association. This is just part of the full story published in Journal Magazine that also featured two similar programs.
The idea for the summer program initially came about because the community organization that had been supplying our students with summer meals for years decided it was not going to continue the program. Our district had a 57 percent free and reduced-price meal rate, so the need was there. However, participation in the organization’s summer program had been declining, even though it had tried different approaches. Those included hosting a single site as well as setting up multiple locations.
A Hillsboro City Schools food service staff member who managed the summer program run by the community organization was devastated when she learned the program was ending on short notice. The group’s final decision came just two weeks before school was out in 2015, and our community had no food program that summer. Right away, we started working on how to revive the summer meals program.
We brainstormed multiple ideas, including refurbished buses, catering trucks and food trucks. With more than 1,200 students eligible for free and reduced-price meals, the need to feed our students during the summer was crucial. It took us over a year to get buy-in from all our stakeholders for a summer meal program. The big break came when our superintendent at the time, Jim Smith, said, “What about a food truck? They are all the buzz right now.”
This idea was exciting and made sense for our district of 156 square miles. So, I began researching food trucks and funding and discovered it would be most cost-effective to lease a new one. We could design it to meet our needs and wouldn’t have to worry about repairs for a few years. We also needed it to hold enough food and serve it fast while traveling from one side of the district to the other. We also needed to keep labor costs to a minimum.
With the help of a $10,000 grant from the Children’s Hunger Alliance, I began work on designing the truck, which would include the alliance’s logo. The organization, which has helped multiple school districts start food truck programs, has since awarded us an additional $2,000.
Everything I read said that to help promote healthy eating the truck’s design should be bright and colorful, with lots of reds and yellows. When the district built new schools a few years ago, it maintained the traditional red brick design of its old schools. We carried over that tradition to the truck, and it is painted to resemble red brick. It is called the HCS Tomahawk and bears the motto, “Slicing out hunger with delicious meals.”
There are a lot of requirements that go with operating a food truck. The company that built it checked our local health codes and made sure we had them all covered. Other requirements include a mobile food license; a food license for the facility where the meals are prepared and a license to take food out of that facility; a fire department inspection of the truck; exit signs inside the back and front of the vehicle; a sticker stating what city and state the truck is from; and fire extinguishers.
The truck is leased for three years with an option for the district to purchase it after the lease agreement expires. The monthly payment on the $149,000 truck is $4,126 and is split between the National School Lunch Program and fees charged to Ohio Department of Education Summer Food Service Program (SFSP). Daily operating costs, such as labor, food and supplies, are charged to SFSP.
The HCS Tomahawk is staffed by district food service personnel. Meals are prepared at the high school, which helps increase the meals served due to all the summer athletic events going on in the building. It also helps organizers promote those events because they can offer free meals. From there, we box or bag meals on the truck and take it to the sites. At each stop we have choice bins for children to choose from. Since they can pick what they want, there is less waste.
In our first year, 2017, SFSP reimbursed us about $57,000 for meals, and we were awarded $10,000 in grants. We served 16,084 meals at seven sites for 47 days. The overall average was 342 meals per day, with 443 meals served daily in midsummer.
For the summer of 2018, we brought in $82,000 in meals and were awarded $17,000 in grants. We served 12 sites for 50 days for a total of 22,026 meals. The overall average was 441 meals per day with a peak of 548 meals in midsummer.
Last year, we started off the summer by taking the food truck to nearby districts’ schools. I took fliers and ice cream, and the kids came to the truck to check it out. We also try to send fliers to every student in Highland County. In addition, we keep in contact with our local newspaper and post information on the district’s social media page.
We also did a summer kickoff event at our old school building site. We partnered with local businesses, churches and agencies to distribute summer outreach information. There were games, bounce houses and other activities for the kids. Plus, the Tomahawk has a history of bubble machine madness that the kids love. And, of course, we served food.
Another popular site is the local movie theater, which shows free movies on Wednesdays. The truck parks next door so the kids can eat after the show. We could serve 600 meals on those days.
Our serving sites last year were our schools, the YMCA, three apartment complexes, the fire station, the district’s central office, two churches and a state park. The truck stops at each site for around 30 minutes, and children are lined up before it arrives.
There have been many challenging aspects of running the program, including getting it started, a lot of paperwork and operating in a rural school district. I’m very fortunate that the school board and administrators support us in feeding our students. Without that support, this program never would have taken off. It’s also important to keep the food service staff happy. They are our biggest asset: they know the kids, are very proud of what they do and don’t mind giving up some of their summer.
What’s rewarding is knowing that I have done a very small part in helping with childhood hunger. Hunger is a very real part of my students’ lives. Fifty-five percent of my students live at or below the poverty level — more than 1,200 students.
A neighboring district has a 65 percent free and reduced-cost meal rate. Many of those students are able to access our free summer meal program because the truck travels to the far corners of our district. That enables us to also help our neighbors.
The kids and parents love the food truck, and most of the community is in awe of the HCS Tomahawk. There were a few in the community who felt that feeding children over the summer was not the district’s job and that area churches should have taken over the task. That was before they saw all the children lining up at the truck or read positive articles about the service in the newspaper. That big red truck has actually helped rebuild positive relations with parents and the community.
Community members also reach out to help in any way they can. They have made donations, volunteered and want to be a part of what we have created here for our students and their families.
And, we are proud that the Children’s Hunger Alliance named the HSC Tomahawk the 2018 Summer Nutrition Program of the Year.