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Families that need help often depend on school lunch programs. Each school year, the USDA provides free and reduced-price meals to 21 million students. Then comes summer. While some cafeterias stay open, more school systems are taking the cafeteria to the kids. Blake Farmer of member station WPLN in Nashville reports.
BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: A school bus rounds the corner and rumbles toward an apartment complex in Murphysboro, Tenn., a fast-growing city outside Nashville. This is no ordinary school bus. It's painted blue and green with the words CHOW Bus over the windshield.
GUNNER FISCHER: CHOW bus, CHOW bus, CHOW bus.
FARMER: 3-year-old Gunner Fischer can't contain himself. It's like a rolling cafeteria, and anyone under age 18 is invited. Some of the seats have been replaced with tables. It's been retrofitted with air-conditioning so kids don't have to sweat through their meal. Gunner has spent the last 30 minutes chasing his sisters around the parking lot with a toy sword. Chocolate is smeared across his face.
Now, Gunner looks like he's already been into breakfast.
PATIENCE CORDIN: He had a chocolate cookie this morning.
FARMER: That's Patience Cordin, his oldest sister. She's in charge this morning since her mom worked the night shift at the nearby Nissan plant. Dad works there, too, building cars, so having a free breakfast show up at 9 a.m. is a big help.
CORDIN: My mom thinks it's great. We don't have to buy cereal.
FARMER: When school gets out, the grocery bill often goes up, says Erica Swain, a mother sitting on her front steps.
ERICA SWAIN: You know, when your kids are at school, you don't really have to worry about feeding them at home during the day, so that adds on a bunch of money in the summertime.
FARMER: On this first morning for the program's summer season, kids step up on the bus to eat their lucky charms and sip chocolate milk. Strange as it sounds, that combo is considered a nutritious breakfast by the USDA. The agency spent nearly half a billion dollars for summer feeding programs last year and expects to spend more this year if it can meet a goal of 200 million meals. Sandy Sheele heads up nutrition for the local school district. She says she noticed some children live too far away to make it in for mealtime throughout the summer.
SANDY SHEELE: I just thought if there's some way we can reach our children out there, and we had a retired school bus so I went and asked for it, and so now I'm constantly looking for buses.
FARMER: This cafeteria-on-wheels concept is something schools around the country are trying out. Mobile, Ala., is doing it. 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 year. It also gave school district staff a close-up encounter with kids they see every day - a mom snaps at her children or several families emerge from the same apartment. Bus driver Dawn Rashonsky says she now understands where they're coming from.
DAWN RASHONSKY: You know, we tend to think that people don't go hungry where we live. We see everything and anything at all these sites.
FARMER: Rashonsky stops at five apartment complexes each morning before driving off at this stop, she offers a little girl with pigtails a hug.
RASHONSKY: Hi, baby. Oh, I love you. See you at lunch.
FARMER: The CHOW Bus returns with turkey sandwiches just after noon. It will be back twice a day until August when school starts up again. For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.
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