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'Meal Machine' helps Washington County Public Schools expand their summer meal programs

July 07, 2013|By KAREN MAWDSLEY | kmawdsley@schurz.com
  • From left, Kaia Owens, Victoria Mathews and Jayden Spearman nibble on some lunch Friday provided by the Meal Machine during its stop at Otterbein United Methodist Church in Hagerstown.
By Ric Dugan/Staff Photographer

Washington County Public Schools and the county’s Community Action Council have embarked on a new initiative to expand their summer meal programs by piloting a food truck known as the Meal Machine.

The truck provides free lunch Monday through Friday in Hagerstown to those up to 18 years old at two locations through Aug. 9. The truck stops at the Cortland Manor Community Building from 11 to 11:30 a.m. and at Otterbein United Methodist Church from noon to 12:35 p.m. 

Summer programs such as the Meal Machine are designed to complement the free and reduced-price lunches and breakfasts public schools offer during the school year.

They focus on “filling the gap for students in the summer ... not knowing where the next meal is coming from,” said Mike Embly, assistant supervisor of food and nutrition for Washington County Public Schools, who was involved in the program’s development.

The truck provides meals to about 100 children at each site every day — double the expectation, Embly said. Based on June’s figures, the program expects to serve 8,000 to 10,000 meals this summer, he said.

“We have found it to be an excellent opportunity for us to get food to kids who otherwise might not be eating regular meals,” said Dave Jordan, executive director of the Community Action Council, which seeks to combat poverty by providing area residents with resources to help them achieve a level of self-sufficiency.

As of Oct. 31, 2012, 47.2 percent of students in Washington County Public Schools qualified for free or reduced-price lunches, up from 46.8 percent the previous fiscal year. Some schools have as much as 91.3 percent of the student body who qualify.

“When you look at areas with need, there’s a lot. ... Those are areas that we start to target,” Embly said.

No proof that a child is eligible for free or reduced-price lunch is required to get a free meal from the truck.

“The most affluent, richest kid in town could show up and get a meal, no questions asked — as long as he’s under 18,” Jordan said.

However, the organizations believe the locations of the sites will ensure that the majority of the children being fed come from low-income households.

“Because of these two locations, we know that the majority of households in the area qualify for free or reduced lunch,” Jordan said.

Meals are prepared at Western Heights Middle School and loaded into the truck, which delivers them to the sites. The program is required to meet specific nutrition standards and also tries to make the meals “kid-friendly,” Embly said.

Hagerstown resident Kayla Fritts, 21, who went to the Otterbein food truck location last week, said she likes the food because “it’s healthy, and it’s good for the kids.”

Meal Machine worker Anita Heefner, who has volunteered in the past at the school sites, said the kids have “responded great” and “we love doing it.”

The program, which was in its planning stages for about a year, is funded by grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“The cost of the meal is reimbursed by the United States Department of Agriculture free and reduced meal program,” Jordan said.

Embly estimated the cost of each meal at $1.25 to $1.50, plus the $1.50 to $1.75 cost of labor. The government provides $3.47 to cover the cost of each meal.

The Department of Agriculture also funds programs offering free breakfast and lunch at Pangborn and Salem Avenue elementary schools. Meals are served to anyone 18 and younger Monday through Thursday until Aug. 8. Breakfast is served from 9 to 9:30 a.m., and lunch is served at noon.

The mobile feeding program solves the problem of getting students to the meal sites at the elementary schools, which often require long walks for families.

“We learned a family of six, I believe, was walking about a mile to a mile and a half to get there (to the Salem Avenue site),” Embly said. “And that’s an example (for) part of our motivation.”

They also strive to offer programming, such as face painting and storytelling, to keep the students on-site to eat the meals.

The Meal Machine is a pilot program, which is why there are only two sites this summer, Jordan said. The hope is not only to continue the program but to expand it next year, he said.

Embly noted the program has applied for additional grants and is looking to add more vehicles next summer.

“It’s very rewarding to see the reaction from the students,” Embly said. “They are very appreciative of the service we’re offering.”

One grandmother, who is raising her daughter’s son, expressed deep appreciation for the program and its workers.

“God bless you all,” she said.

Paramount Elementary School Principal Erin Wolford, some of whose students come from the Cortland Manor area, has been to that site a few times, she said, to greet families and to welcome people as they approach the truck.

“It’s just been fantastic,” she said. “The kids are excited, very appreciative, and we’ve gotten to meet a lot of families.”

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