Mobile student lunch program to roll out in Rifle
A mobile program providing free lunches to children 18 and younger will roll out Friday in Rifle, and stakeholders are optimistic that the program will succeed and grow where past efforts have struggled to catch on.
The program, which is in a pilot stage, will stop at three different locations in Rifle between 11 a.m. and 12:20 p.m. on Fridays, when students in Garfield Re-2 school district do not have access to school lunches. The free lunches, provided by LIFT-UP, will include healthy items, such as a ham and cheese sandwich, fruits and vegetables, baked chips and milk.
This is the most recent attempt to provide meals to children in families that struggle with food security — a continual problem in the region.
In the 2014-15 school year, 53 percent of Re-2’s 4,668 students qualified for free or reduced-price lunches, according to data compiled by the Colorado Department of Education. Some of the schools with the highest concentration of qualifying children — including Wamsley Elementary, where more than 70 percent of the children qualify for free or reduced lunch — are in Rifle.
Despite that need, a previous effort to provide meals over the summer to children in the area failed to gain traction. The summer nutrition program was done in conjunction with the summer school program up until this past year, when the nutrition program was halted due to the lack of children using the service.
“The participation rate was nonexistent,” said Theresa Hamilton, director of districtwide services.
The lack of participation was largely due to geography and a lack of access, Hamilton and others said. By bringing the meals to the various locations, organizers hope to overcome some of the geographical barriers.
“The mobile program approach is becoming really popular across the country, and we think that this will be a great asset to the community,” said Dana Wood, coordinator of LiveWell Garfield County.
However, organizers did not have to look far to find an example of a successful mobile lunch program. Mesa County School District 51 rolled out the Lunch Lizard — a mobile food program providing free meals — this past summer. Thanks to funding contributed by the Western Colorado Community Foundation, the district was able to purchase a vehicle from which to serve hot lunches, said Dan Sharp, director of nutrition services for Mesa 51.
The Lunch Lizard made five total stops per day, Monday though Thursday, in Grand Junction and Orchard Mesa, areas where four out of five students qualify for free or reduced lunch, according to Sharp. The end result was the Lunch Lizard served on average between 150 and 200 meals per day, well within the range needed to cover operating expenses through the National School Lunch Program.
“So were we successful? The answer is yes,” Sharp said.
With a desire to get as much out of the Lunch Lizard as possible, the program has been delivering meals to three alternative district schools that lack a kitchen. That decision saved taxpayers the large expense of building a kitchen at each school, while also providing students the option of purchasing a hot or cold lunch. Mesa 51 and the Western Colorado Community Foundation are about to undergo a fundraising effort with the goal of purchasing another vehicle and expanding the summer nutrition program to serve the Clifton area.
Hamilton cited the Lunch Lizard as an example of a successful program during a presentation to the Re-2 school board in early September. The presentation received positive responses from board members.
Along with improving access, stakeholders here locally are strategically planning the rollout of the pilot program to maximize awareness. The three stops in Rifle are the same locations that the Aspen Community Foundation’s Gus the Bus stops for the Preschool on Wheels Program.
“We’re that entry point for a lot of families to connect to other resources,” said Logan Hood, manager of the Preschool on Wheels Program.
A survey conducted found general support for the mobile lunch program among parents with children in the Preschool on Wheels Program, according to Hood.
Ultimately, organizers hope this pilot program will grow and not only offer Friday meals elsewhere within the Garfield Re-2 boundaries, but also expand to a summer nutrition program.
At the moment, LIFT-UP is providing the food for the meals as well as the vehicle that will transport the food — both at no cost to the school district, aside from some staff time in planning and preparing meals.
“It falls right into line with what our mission is,” said Kimberly Loving, executive director of LIFT-UP.
The group is taking its time to work out any kinks that arise in the pilot program, which is intended to build the support for a future summer nutrition program. Additionally, stakeholders are exploring possible grant and other funding sources so the school district can eventually purchase a vehicle.
While Mesa County’s Lunch Lizard serves as a model, it is important to recognize the differences between the two school districts, Hamilton said. With Re-2 encompassing Rifle, Silt and New Castle, expenses such as fuel costs and vehicle maintenance will likely be higher here.
“We don’t want to do it too fast and make it unsustainable,” Hamilton said. “We want this to be a sustainable program.”
If they are successful, Wood sees and even larger opportunity for similar programs elsewhere in the county.
“In the next couple of years the goal would be to do this in the entire (Re-2) district,” she said. “There definitely is a need in the whole district and even beyond that I would like to see some sort of a mobile program in all three districts because there’s a need all over our county.”
When such an expansion could happen is unknown, but what is certain is that organizers are optimistic that the mobile lunch program will overcome the obstacles that plagued previous efforts.
“I think it’s going to be successful,” Hood said.
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