Feeding Our Community: Food Trucks Make Free Summer Meals Mobile for Dane County Residents in Need

At an MMSD summer school site
Photo by REAP Food Group

It’s never too early to talk about the summer food programs for children operated by Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD), Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, and Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin. And now the conversation includes how REAP Food Group and YMCA of Dane County are using food trucks to change the way healthy food is being distributed.

The REAP Food Group

The Farm to School Program began working in partnership with MMSD Summer Food Program in 2014 to bring locally grown produce and food education to the program. Natasha Smith, director of the REAP Food Group Farm to School Program since 2013, says the MMSD Summer Food Program serves children during the summer as a way to close the nutrition gap for the students dependent on school meals. Part of the USDA Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), it serves free meals to all children 18 and under.

The MMSD Summer Food Program has about 50 sites in Madison, including parks, schools, community centers, and apartment buildings. REAP says it hopes to add additional outdoor meal sites in 2018, which will be the second year of REAP’s two-year Community Opportunity Grant from the Wisconsin Partnership Program to help MMSD improve its Summer Food Program.

Natasha says the most recent gain for the REAP Farm to School Program was Roth Cheese’s (Monroe, Wisconsin) donation of a food truck in May 2017. “They are an awesome company and have been a supporter of REAP for a while.” The truck was used to distribute more than 1,500 free lunches at Madison’s Elver Park and Southdale Park in summer 2017.

Photograph provided by YMCA of Dane County

In 2018, Natasha says REAP hopes to serve more meals with the truck. “We haven’t fully laid out our plan yet, but hopefully we add one additional site, possibly more. It’s really cool to see this truck in action. We’ve been trying to get a food truck for a couple years now. It’s been used successfully in other districts around the country.”

REAP has coordinated Farm to School efforts in MMSD for 14 years. The Farm to School Program works with MMSD year-round and will continue to use the truck throughout the school year. Natasha says, “It’s a great way to bring the meals we know are needed to the community.”

One of REAP’s overall goals for the 2017 Summer Food Program was to increase the amount of meals serviced in 2017 as compared to 2016. During the 2016–2017 school year, REAP sourced 75,000 pounds of fresh, local fruits and vegetables for Madison school meals and snacks. Natasha says this goal was achieved, with thousands more summer meals served.

With a sponsorship from the City of Madison in 2017, REAP was able to serve adults at its two park sites. “We thought that if adults can eat too, they may be more likely to come and bring their kids,” Natasha says. “We are trying a basket of tactics, and evaluating what we try, to see what is successful. Then we can share our findings of what tactics work with programs across the country.”

Photograph provided by YMCA of Dane County

Part of REAP’s Farm to School program also includes incorporating education and daily activities at the park sites to go along with the meals. Children learn how food grows, where it comes from, and nutrition information. “We believe anyone, no matter where they live or come from, should have access to the best-tasting, locally grown food,” Natasha says. “Every bite of every meal is an opportunity for education.”

YMCA of Dane County

The SFSP for children provides nutritious meals and activities to over 700 children to keep them nourished and engaged. The program is federally funded and operated nationally by the USDA. Lisa Coombs-Gerou, vice president of membership operations and strategic partnerships with YMCA of Dane County, says the YMCA hasn’t received funding to expand its summer food program in two years.

That changed in September 2017, when the YMCA received a $30,000 YMCA of the USA national grant that will be used to improve children’s food programs. “This funding includes expansion of our after school, out of school, and the newest piece we received funding for, weekends,” Lisa says.

A food truck is another element the YMCA is exploring with the grant. Lisa says there is a focus on feeding kids in the summer and improving food deserts, neighborhoods where you can’t purchase fresh food.

Photograph provided by REAP Food Group

In 2016, the YMCA partnered with Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin to identify those who are in need of food through food security screens. When YMCA members join, they are asked if they have gone without food in the last 30 days, and if they have gone without resources in the last 30 days. “If they check either one of those boxes, we connect them to resources that can help secure food,” Lisa says. “The surprising finding was the number of seniors who have gone without food.”

If purchased, the YMCA’s food truck would provide fruits, vegetables, and protein to families in low-income areas of highest need across Dane County and distribute free food, particularly in the summer. Lisa says the goal would be to have the truck ready for June 2018. “There is such a need for food. This is a great opportunity for the YMCA to extend its services beyond the building to help families who don’t have access. It’s a great opportunity to be able to make an impact on the lives in our community who need it most.”

In 2018, the YMCA plans to have three total locations where the community can get food, compared to only having the one at the East YMCA location. The YMCA will announce those other two locations when they are finalized. “We just saw the number of kids coming in who didn’t have proper meals or nutrition,” Lisa says. “We had to figure out a solution to be able to feed kids.”

Chelsey Dequaine works as director of social media strategy for designCraft Advertising and is a freelance writer.

MMSD Summer Food Program:
food.madison.k12.wi.us/2017-summer-food-program

REAP Farm to School program
reapfoodgroup.org/farm-to-school

Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin Summer Hunger
secondharvestmadison.org/our-impact/summer-hunger

Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction
dpi.wi.gov/community-nutrition/sfsp

YMCA of Dane County SFSP for children
ymcadanecounty.org/summerfood