"Chow bus! Chow bus! Chow bus!" chants Gunner Fischer, 3, as a custom-painted school bus rounds the corner and rumbles toward his apartment complex in Murfreesboro, Tenn.
About 21 million students nationwide eat free and reduced-price meals throughout the school year, but getting those same kids fed during the summer is a challenge. Only a fraction of those make it to schools or community centers for summer meals.
So some school districts are getting creative in the way they're using USDA funds: Murfreesboro City Schools is taking the cafeteria to the kids. The district calls it the Combating Hunger on Wheels Bus — or the CHOW bus.
Gunner has spent the last 30 minutes chasing his sisters with a toy sword, waiting on breakfast. His face is smeared with chocolate, remnants of the cookies he's already been into this morning.
The words CHOW bus have replaced the school bus sign over the windshield. It's blue and green with a food-themed mural on the side. Inside, some seats have been replaced with tables. And the bus is air conditioned so kids don't have to sweat through their Lucky Charms and chocolate milk. Yes, that's considered a nutritious breakfast by the USDA.
"My mom thinks it's great. We don't have to buy cereal," says Patience Cordin, Gunner's older sister, who's looking after Gunner and their other siblings. Their mom is still asleep after working the night shift at the nearby Nissan plant.
When school gets out, the grocery bill often goes up, says Erica Swain, a mother sitting on her front steps.
"When your kids are in school, you don't really have to worry about feeding them at home during the day," she says. "So that adds on a bunch of money in the summertime."
Swain sent her son and nephew to eat breakfast on the bus. Anyone under age 18 is invited for breakfast and for lunch, no questions asked.
Nearly $500 million was spent nationwide on the program last summer, and the USDA expects to increase that figure if it meets its goal of providing 200 million meals this summer.
Sandy Sheele heads up nutrition for Murfreesboro City Schools, which is in its second year of mobile meals. She says she noticed some children live too far from school to make it in for mealtime throughout the summer.
"I just thought, if there's some way we can reach our children out there," recalls Sheele, "and we had a retired school bus, so I went and asked for it. Now I'm constantly looking for buses."
This cafeteria-on-wheels concept is something schools around the country are trying out, though each has its own spin on the idea. Mobile, Ala., is doing something similar. So is San Marcos, Texas, and several counties in Florida.
In Murfreesboro, the mobile meal program helped the city double the number of children who were fed last summer, from roughly 30,000 meals served to more than 60,000. The push also gives school district staff a close-up encounter with kids they see every day.
They may witness a mom snapping at her children or several families emerging from the same apartment. Bus driver Dawn Rashonsky says she now understands where they're coming from and why they might be a little grumpy when they show up for school.
"We tend to think that people don't go hungry where we live," she says. "We see everything and anything at all these sites."
Rashonsky stops the CHOW bus at five apartment complexes each morning. Before driving off, a little girl with pigtails leans in for a hug.
"I love you," Rashonsky says, "see you at lunch."
The CHOW bus returns with turkey sandwiches just after noon. It will be back twice a day until August, when school starts up again.
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