The Lunch Bus: Bringing Summer Meals to Hungry Students
Florida-based photojournalist Melissa Lyttle talks about her time spent with staff members at Hudson Elementary School documenting their mobile summer feeding program serving Hudson, Fla. The bus they use to reach local children makes 3 stops and feeds about 125 hungry kids each day. Photos by Melissa Lyttle for Education Week.
I don’t usually do mornings, but wanted to get to Hudson Elementary School when lunches were being made, which meant leaving my house at the crack of dawn. When I arrived, Food Nutrition Services manager Jan Popp was already in her office doing paperwork and getting ready for the day. She greeted me and immediately went to work sorting fruits, veggie sticks and pb&j sandwiches, before bagging about 125 lunches for the day’s trip. Jan has worked in Pasco County school cafeterias for decades, and over time has seen the need increase.
Three years ago they applied for a grant to start a summer mobile feeding service that they lovingly call the “lunch bus.” It makes stops in some of the poorest parts of the county, bringing free lunches to anyone under 18. Jan and others realized that the school lunch was, for a lot of kids they serve, the only meal they get each day. They also realized that transportation costs were keeping people from coming to the schools, which offer a free breakfast and lunch throughout the summer. So they wanted to bring the food to them.
Jan and I talked as she assembled healthy lunches. As more of her employees arrived, they started telling me about the families on the routes, the kids that they all know by name, the abject poverty that makes parts of Florida look like a third world country. They had me simultaneously laughing and crying.
I pulled out my iPhone, and explained that I was going to be Instagramming photos throughout the day, for the Education Week account, and I asked if the term “lunch ladies” was offensive. They all said “no” and agreed it was endearing. So my first post said something to the effect of “these aren’t your average lunch ladies.”
By the time everything was packed up in boxes and coolers and the bus had arrived, they invited me to join them for lunch. Jan explained that they all like to eat together before they go, so they have this tradition of eating one meal together each day. I was honored to be a part of it. We dined on mini calzones and chocolate milk in the school lunch room.
Then they loaded up the bus, and we headed out. There were three stops to be made, hundreds of mouths to feed, and they didn’t want to keep the kids waiting.
At the first stop, the bus circled through two adjoining trailer parks, honking its horn to announce its arrival, before parking in a grassy lot in between the two. Within minutes, kids started coming from every direction. Some sprinting to the bus, barefoot and shirtless. Others pushing their younger siblings in strollers and wagons. All were happy to see the bus. And the bus driver and two lunch ladies on board were genuinely happy to see them. “Where’s your brother today?” “How’s your mom doing, is she still sick?” “Are you read for school to start?” “Have you beat that video game yet?” It was incredible to realize how passionate these women are about these kids, their families, and their lives. It wasn’t just a job or something they had to do. It was a passion and something they genuinely wanted to do. Love doing. Can’t imagine not doing.
As we pulled up to the second stop, near some Section 8, low-income housing units, dozens of kids, some with their moms, most without, were lined up along a chain link fence. Waiting. Hungry. Ready for the bus. As it parked, bus driver Karen Huntoon beeped the horn and, just like at the last stop, kids came running. The sound signaled that lunch was ready. And like Jan said early on, for most it was the only meal they were getting that day. At this stop several moms boarded the bus with their kids. They can’t eat if they’re over 18, but they weren’t coming for the food, they were coming for the conversation, for the familiarity, for the fellowship. This happened at the third stop too, in between two big apartment complexes, where kids and their moms came out of the woodwork. And they lingered when they were done. It was obvious they didn’t want to leave.
One of the “lunch ladies” told me that part of the grant dictates that the majority of the meal be eaten on the bus, which has been converted into a makeshift cafeteria, with tables and benches lining both walls. They know that for some of the kids it’s the only sit-down, family-style meal they’ll get. So they try to make it special.
Some of the food ends up in a “give away box,” meaning some other child didn’t want it, didn’t like that particular item, or was full and just couldn’t eat it. Sensing some kids being extra hungry, the “lunch ladies” brought extra bags of carrot sticks, or apple slices to them — trying to fill their bellies with healthy snacks.
Just like at the first two stops, they knew all the children’s names and stories.
They got hugs when the kids were done.
Several of the stops were so busy, that I tried to help out where I could. If one child asked for juice instead of milk, I’d help swap it out. If someone didn’t want their carrots, but wanted a cheese stick, I’d see what the give-away box had in it. I’d point out where the trash can was when they were done and try to help clean up a little if I had down time from shooting.
In between trips and on the way back to school at the end of the day I got to know the ladies a little bit better. And they got to know me, I shared stories about projects I’m working on, and things I’ve seen as well.
Their dedication to their community is inspiring. Their passion for feeding the children they work with is incredible. Their spirit and laughter is infectious.
One of the “lunch ladies” paid me a huge compliment when we returned and she told the boss, Jan, that I was one of them now. I felt incredibly honored to be accepted into their family, and glad to know people like them are out there making the world a better place. When we were done for the day, I was handed another chocolate milk, for the long drive home, and given hugs from everyone.