Children began gathering in the parking lot of Murfreesboro's Spring Valley apartments before 9 a.m. Just as scheduled, a blue and green custom painted bus rolled around the corner at 9:15.
“Chow bus! Chow bus! Chow bus!” three-year-old Gunner Fischer chanted.
Fischer waits with his siblings as the cafeteria-on-wheels comes to a stop. His oldest sister is in charge. Patience Cordin just finished her freshman year at Oakland High School. Her parents are still sleeping since they work the night shift at the Nissan plant.
“My mom thinks it’s great. We don’t have to buy cereal,” Cordin says.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to serve 200 million free meals to school children this summer. In most districts, the kids come to the cafeteria for breakfast and lunch. But in Murfreesboro, the cafeteria has begun coming to them.
On this first morning for the program’s summer season, kids lunge up the bus's steps to eat their Lucky Charms and sip chocolate milk. The bus, which is retrofitted with air conditioning and restaurant tables, will serve five different sites before returning to each with turkey sandwiches for lunch. This schedule will be repeated every weekday until August.
This mobile cafeteria is something schools around the country are trying out. Sandy Sheele, who leads the federally funded nutrition program in Murfreesboro, noticed that some children lived too far away to make it in for mealtime throughout the summer.
“I just thought there’s some way we can reach our children out there," Sheele says. "We had a retired school bus, so I went and asked for it. So now I’m constantly looking for buses.”
The program revved up in 2014. A second bus was added this year.
Dawn Rashonsky is back for her second season as a driver. She says meeting students at their homes has given her a new perspective on Murfreesboro.
“We tend to think that people don’t go hungry where we live," Rashonsky says. "We see everything and anything at all these sites. I don’t think I would wake up in a happy mood if I had to go through some of their lives.”
Murfreesboro is one of the only districts in Tennessee trying out these meals on wheels for kids. Organizers say they’ve been contacted by several others interested in replicating the program, including Metro Nashville Public Schools.