Partnership puts summer food site on wheels in Omaha

Note:  Thousands of children in Nebraska are food insecure and struggle to get enough to eat in the summer months when they are out of school.  Summer Food Service Program sites across the state do amazing work helping feed kids each year to make sure they don’t go hungry.  During “National Summer Food Service Program Week,” we will feature several of these sites that help feed Nebraska kids each summer.

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The Kids Cruisin’ Kitchen is a mobile food truck operated by a partnership of Food Bank for the Heartland, The Salvation Army, and Hunger Free Heartland

In Omaha, there are many sites in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) that help feed hungry kids each summer, but several organizations recently joined together in a partnership that puts summer meals on wheels to deliver right to where children already are gathered.

Food Bank for the Heartland, The Salvation Army, and Hunger Free Heartland joined forces to start the Kids Cruisin’ Kitchen – a mobile food truck that has served nutritious meals free of charge to kids for the last three years.

The Kids Cruisin’ Kitchen uses a pair of the Salvation Army’s disaster relief trucks, each equipped with a mobile kitchen, to serve meals to children in Omaha areas with low-income families.  Both trucks serve meals at three different sites in Omaha for 30 minutes per site each weekday.  Mobile sites are in areas where qualified kids already are likely to be such as apartment complexes, trailer parks, or public parks.

See a list of the Kids Cruisin Kitchen locations in Omaha for this summer.

James Farley, a Food Bank for the Heartland employee who supervised the Kids Cruisin’ Kitchen program the previous two summers, said children came to know the trucks and program staff members so well they often would be waiting outside when the food truck arrived.

“They’re really polite and respectful,” James said.  “They line up and say thank you.”

Beginning this year, a food vendor has provided meals for the Kids Cruisin’ Kitchen.  Once the truck arrives at a serving site, the staff uses the truck’s mobile kitchen to heat the food to safe temperatures.

James said each truck served between 40-50 meals each day on average, occasionally serving as many as 100 meals in a day.  Site staff often would lay out blankets on the ground so children could enjoy their meals picnic-style.

The Kids Cruisin’ Kitchen staff created such a positive experience, the children gave them a signed photo to say thank you for helping provide meals in the summer. The experience was so moving, James said, that he is looking for more flexibility in his work with Food Bank of the Heartland so he can be more involved with the program next summer.

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Children served by the Kids Cruisin’ Kitchen gave supervisor James Farley this signed picture to say thank you for serving meals one summer.

“It’s a good opportunity to reach out to other kids and give back to the community,” James said.

In addition to helping operate the Kids Cruisin’ Kitchen, the Salvation Army operates a number of SFSP sites to help feed children in Omaha.  Appleseed visited the Salvation Army – North Corps (2424 Pratt St., Omaha) last week and witnessed the coordinated effort that goes into serving more than 1,000 meals to children each month in the summer.

The North Corps site feeds most of its children through a summer camp program, but it is also an open site, which means any child from the neighborhood under age 18 can receive a meal free of charge because North Corps is in a community where a majority of the children qualify for free or reduced-price school lunch.

Jim Sells, Program Director for Salvation Army – North Corps, said his site has nearly doubled the number of meals it serves each day in the summer over the last two years.

“We’re glad we’re here,” Jim said.  “That’s what we’re here for.  We’re glad to serve the kids and their families.”

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The Salvation Army – North Corps will feed more than 1,000 children meals this summer and also runs a meal service for adults.

The North Corps meal program, which also includes a Kare Kitchen that feeds adults, has grown in popularity as the site has increased the number of fresh ingredients it serves with meals, according to Betty Cushing, who helps administer the program at North Corps.  Betty and her husband often make trips to the Food Bank of the Heartland for fresh fruits and vegetables.  Local restaurants often donate rice or bread, which North Corps can donate to local families in need.

“Some of our families really depend on the items we’re able to give to them,” Betty said.

There is a vibrant spirit from the kids as lunch is readied.  Kids are laughing and chatting loudly.  Several children play video games, while others shoot hoops on an indoor basketball hoop as volunteers prepare lunches of sloppy joes, corn, fresh tangerines, sliced peaches, and milk in the North Corps kitchen.

Staff at North Corps work hard to emphasize eating meals as a community experience.  They encourage kids to eat together with staff and have conversations around the table.  Collectively, this turns a quick lunch into a family setting.

“One of my main things I saw when I walked in here was these kids didn’t get that meal component that we take for granted,” Jim said.  “Sitting down with the family, eating, and enjoying that experience.  We take it for granted, but these kids don’t experience that.  So I want us to all sit together so the kids can interact with the staff.”

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Volunteers serve lunches to children at the Salvation Army – North Corps Summer Food Service Program site.

Betty adds: “I love coming back here at lunch time so you can just hear the positive vibe of kids in the summertime, hanging out with their friends.  Just that rapport between the kids and the kitchen staff.  It’s fun.”

To find out how to start a program to help kids in your community, contact the Nebraska Department of Education, which oversees the Summer Food Service Program in Nebraska, by calling (800) 731-2233, or visit the USDA’s SFSP website. Together we can provide enough food for the hungry children in our communities.

See more in Appleseed’s Summer Food Service Program series.

Summer Food 101: What you can do to fight childhood hunger in Nebraska
In Falls City, feeding children in the summer is a labor of love
Lincoln Summer Food organizers have high goals for feeding kids
Nebraska Participation in Summer Meals for Children Continues to Fall Short

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