ROCHESTER — A Summer Meals food truck, which began as a pilot program last year, has helped expand the number of city children that were fed this summer.
More than 1,500 additional summer meals were served each week this year, in addition to the meals served at established sites, thanks to a Summer Meals on wheels initiative that is part of a collaborative effort to provide free, healthy meals to city children ages 18 and younger. The Summer Meals Partnership includes Foodlink, Rochester City School District, the Rochester Area Community Foundation and Common Ground Health and other community organizations, according to Mark Dwyer, Foodlink’s communications manager.
The partnership oversees the distribution of the free breakfasts and other meals at 115 sites around the city that include schools, churches, and recreation and outreach centers. Last year, the Summer Meals program served nearly 400,000 meals total at 115 sites, Dwyer said. Foodlink and school district staff served about 130 meals a day through the food truck from July 10 through the first day of school, Dwyer added.
About 22,000 students in the city school district are eligible for the program, noted Aaron Lattanzio, program coordinator for the Summer Meals Partnership. The partnership’s goal is to reach at least half of those students during the summer, he said.
Teenagers are the most difficult to reach and is one of the reasons for the creation of the mobile initiative, he said.
“We want to find where the teens are and engage them,” he added.
A March 2013 report by the Center for Governmental Research found that as many as 16,000 low-income youths in Rochester are missing out on healthy, free summer meals made available to them while school is not in session. Since the partnership formed six years ago, the number of children served by the summer meals program has risen every year, Lattanzio noted.
The mobile component began last year using Foodlink and school district trucks. Food was delivered to two sites in neighborhoods that did not have a nearby Summer Meals site, he explained.
This year, the mobile component was expanded to offer meals at four sites around the city each day and three others on a rotating basis, Lattanzio added. The school district also used a vehicle to distribute meals at two additional sites, he said. The mobile sites included Conkey Corner Park, where children who are part of a Project HOPE program received lunch on Aug. 1.
“We try to go to locations where the youth are gathering,” such as playgrounds and libraries, Lattanzio said. “This is also an opportunity to open up (the Summer Meals program) to other people and other kids.”
At Conkey Park, the Summer Meals staff showed the children gathered at the park where to wash their hands for lunch and then served each one a tray with a Mexican pita wrap and corn.
“We try to encourage them to try new (foods),” said Silvia Mitchell, a Summer Meals truck operator. “They will come and look and may not like the way it looks. We have to get creative … and make it more kid friendly. Fruit is always a hit.”
Neikeysha Encarnación, 11, said she has tried some new vegetables through the mobile program, including tomatoes. She comes out daily for the Project HOPE activities at Conkey Park and said the food truck is a good addition.
“Maybe some kids wouldn’t eat at home,” she said. “But they have food because they can eat here.”