By Heather Hale
The cheery, bright-green truck is unmistakable as it pulls up to parks in Great Falls each weekday. So are the groups of kids that gather around it.
This isn’t an ice cream truck or some trendy taco or barbecue business. The truck serves free lunches to anyone 18 or younger across the city. Run by the Great Falls Public School District, it is, unfortunately, a necessity in our town. These trucks serve on average 460 meals a day as they visit these parks.
The school district reported, 17,000 meals have been served from the second week in June till August 4, 2019.
Many students in Great Falls go hungry. It’s something teachers grapple with every day as student hunger manifests itself in the classroom. Fourth-grade teacher Alissa Kline has seen it in her classroom.
“When students come to my classroom hungry, they struggle to focus on their learning,” she said.
“They are distracted; their thoughts are focused on food and how/when they are going to get it. We, as adults, are no different. When we are hungry, it is hard to think of anything else until that need is fulfilled.”
Fortunately for GFPS students, the free and reduced lunch programs meet their nutritional needs at school. Students, regardless of their economic situation are guaranteed at least two meals a day during the school year.
But what happens to these students during the summer? Hunger does not magically go away as the temperatures rise. Here’s where that green truck comes in.
With a federal grant, GFPS launched the food truck program to help address the need for healthy meals during the summer. The mobile truck delivers nutritionally sound lunches to six sites throughout Great Falls during the week, ensuring that vulnerable students still have access to meals.
“Teachers really care about their students and continue to think about their well-being over the summer,” Kline said.
“It is comforting to know that they can continue to access resources, like the food truck, over the summer if they need to. It helps them to be ready for the upcoming school year.”
This summer the food truck program teamed up with the Get Fit Great Falls Park Pals program, which provides fun activities to kids at the park. The combination of exercise and healthy foods ensures that students are prepared to reenter the classroom this fall. Most importantly for the kids, the programs are a lot of fun, and the staffers make great efforts to really connect with the kids. Both programs run through Aug. 14.
The informal approach to the food truck program means no preregistration, no verification, and no stigma around accessing food throughout the summer. All are welcome and encouraged to use the food truck, regardless of circumstance.
Transition Facilitator for GFPS, Darreck Hale, sees a stigma-free food truck as an integral part of the GFPS mission to care for the health and safety of all students.
“One of the biggest limitations to students getting the help they need is access. Many students can’t get to a designated meal spot in the summer, and many parents can’t register their children for complex programs,” Hale said.
“Maintaining anonymity for students and putting the trailer where the kids are, in the park, is key to the food truck’s success. It fits the needs of our community really well.”
Like Mrs. Kline, Mr. Hale sees hungry kids every day in his job coordinating the district’s 22 food pantries. Great Falls schools distributed around 20,000 pounds of food throughout the school year, but it gets hard to track down students during the summer months. The food truck fills that gap.
As a community, we can support GFPS as it tends to hungry students throughout our community. One way is to donate to the Great Falls Public Schools Foundation. Or give directly to the Great Falls Food Bank, in care of the GFPS Transition Program.