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Tuesday, Sep 19, 2017
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Pasco school redefines 'meals on wheels'

HOLIDAY - Four-year-old Marcus Cordero always likes ketchup with his meals, and on Thursday, right after he climbed aboard the school bus, Theresa Lewis didn't disappoint. "I remembered," she said, handing Marcus a packet of the red stuff he craved. A grateful Marcus applied the ketchup to his sandwich and soon was enjoying another meal aboard Gulfside Mobile Dining, a converted school bus that is delivering meals to children in neighborhoods near Gulfside Elementary School this summer. Lewis is the "lunch lady" onboard. Kathie Bowser is the driver. Together they set out each weekday morning from the elementary school with 40 lunches packed in a cooler and an itinerary that includes five stops.
The lunch bus came about after Principal Chris Clayton realized there were a lot of hungry children in the community, as evidenced by food insecurity he saw at school. Some children were hungry all day. Some hoarded food. They raced to the front of the lunch line. At Gulfside, 85 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. The school district operates a summer lunch program, but students must go to a participating school, recreation center or other locale for one of those free meals. Clayton didn't see the kind of summer-lunch turnout he would have expected based on his student population. He decided taking the meals to the children might be a better bet, so last summer Gulfside launched its lunch bus. The bus comes with few rules. Anyone younger than 18 who shows up gets a free meal. The children don't have to be Gulfside students. No registration is required. One of the few requirements is there is no takeout. The children must eat aboard the bus, which has three dining tables bolted to the floor. Bus seats face the tables on each side, so a table can seat four children at a time. The 40 meals are prepared at the school and loaded on the bus. On a typical day that is enough to cover all the children who show up. One day the bus did run short of lunches, but when Lewis saw the sandwich supply dwindling she made a quick telephone call to the school and someone brought out extras. Although the school district's summer lunch program operates at locations throughout the county, Gulfside Elementary is the only Pasco school that also offers a lunch bus, said Rick Kurtz, the district's director of food and nutrition services. Meals in the summer lunch program are paid for with funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Gulfside Mobile Dining began serving meals June 18 and will continue through Aug. 3. A meal includes a sandwich, a fruit or vegetable, milk and juice. The bus makes five regularly scheduled stops, but Thursday did not get off to a good start. No one showed up to eat at the first two stops. "It's lonely out here today," Lewis said. That wasn't a complete surprise. Those first stops, at Anclote River Church and Holiday Lake Estates Civic Center, usually just attract a handful of children, Lewis and Bowser said. The real action, they said, is at Westin Oaks Apartments, off Alternate U.S. 19. They were right. At least 20 children came and went during the 45 minutes the bus was parked next to the apartment complex's swimming pool. Even that was slow by the usual standards, parents said. "Normally, there's not room on the bus; we have to wait," said Dawn Golding, whose 2-year-old daughter, Teegan Carico, munched on a ham and turkey sandwich. Beth Cordero, the mother of Marcus, is impressed with the bus, especially the little touches like Lewis remembering Marcus liked ketchup. Lewis also accommodates Marcus' peanut allergy and brings an alternative sandwich on days the bus serves peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, said Cordero, whose daughter, Kaylynn, 7, also enjoyed a lunch on the bus Thursday. "I think it's one of a kind," Cordero said. "It's awesome."

rblair@tampatrib.com (813) 371-1853

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