BENSON — For students who rely on free or reduced-price lunches during the school year, summertime can be a challenge.
In years past, those students could go to one of a handful of schools where federal grant dollars kept the cafeterias open in summer.
This year, the Johnston County school system is piloting a mobile food service program. It’s in Benson and Selma this summer, but the schools hope to reach other towns in the future.
Rachel Findley, the school system’s director of child-nutrition services, said the mobile program solves the puzzle of how to feed students who don’t have transportation. “The only way we’ll be able to feed students in the most impoverished areas is to go to them, because students can’t get to us,” she said.
Four days a week, cafeteria workers prepare meals, then ride on buses to stops in Benson and Selma, where they deliver breakfast and later lunch. The individually packaged meals are for young people ages 1 to 18, Findley said.
The bus stops are the stops with the most riders during the school year, so they are in areas with high concentrations of children.
Last week, Melissa Nelson and six children at her home day care ate lunch on an air-conditioned school bus that stopped right outside of Nelson’s house in Benson. In the summer, Nelson takes care of 11 children who come at different shifts. She’s thankful for the mobile food program because she doesn’t have to charge parents for meals.
The children accompanying Nelson on the bus were the little ones.
“Once they get older, they won’t think it’s cool to eat a meal on a school bus,” said Findley, who traveled to some of the stops last week. “But when it gets toward the end of the month, and their mom runs out of food, they’ll eat on the bus with us.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reimburses the school system for the cost of the meals. Findley said she hopes the schools will get funding next year to carry the food programs to other towns, including Clayton.
To qualify for the meal program, a town must be in a school district where more than 50 percent of students receive free or reduced-price meals. That means Clayton qualifies.
If the program expands to Clayton, the bus would go to stops near Cooper Elementary School, the area with the most students receiving free and reduced-price meals.
The summer food program will continue until Aug. 15, a week before students return to school.
The meals consist of an entree with two vegetables, fruit, bread and milk.