With schools back in session, a program that provided free meals to children during the summer in parks, playgrounds, campgrounds, and churches has come to an end. In one western Massachusetts community, kids had healthy lunches delivered right to where they live from a fully-equipped kitchen on wheels.
Hundreds of children enjoyed lunch this summer from “BabyBerk,” the food truck that is part of the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s award-winning and nationally-recognized dining program.
The BabyBerk, which has been very popular on campus since it first rolled out in 2011, was a big hit at the apartment complexes in Amherst where it made scheduled stops this summer providing free lunches to kids and teenagers under 18-years-old.
At the Rolling Green Apartments, Anne Martineau said her two sons, ages 5 and 9, enjoyed the variety of lunches that were available – carved turkey breast on salad greens, black bean burritos, cheese quesadillas, roasted red pepper hummus, and the universal favorite: a cheeseburger with chocolate milk.
"They've tried a couple of things I don't know they would have tried otherwise," she said. " Some are successful and some are not, but it gives them a chance to try it, so it has been wonderful."
This was the first time the food truck participated in the Summer Food Service Program, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and administered by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
It was state education officials who contacted UMass Amherst Dining about participating, according to Chris Fisher, the food truck and concessions manager at the flagship campus.
"No one was using food trucks to cook to serve for the summer meals program," explained Fisher. " There were food trucks being used basically as storage vessels where food was prepared, put on the truck, and brought to public places for what is called an 'open site meal service.'"
BabyBerk served lunch Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays during designated times at seven apartment building complexes and the Mill River Recreation area. The sites were chosen by the state using census data that identified locations where children are considered at-risk for hunger.
Both hot and cold lunches were available, and in keeping with the standards of the UMass Amherst dining program, most of the menu was locally-sourced.
" It is a pretty strict guideline as to what you offer in terms of nutrition, portioning, types of food, and food groups, so within those guidelines we are doing the best we can," said Fisher.
150-250 meals a day were served – well short of the projected 600 meals. Fisher said if the food truck is asked to participate in the program next summer, he’ll look to expand it to five-days per week and do more promotion.
" It has been so rewarding," Fisher said of this year's first-time participation in the summer meals program for children. " We don't get to serve this demographic very often and the excitment in their eyes when they see the food truck is just amazing."
The participation in the summer meals program also meant employment during the summer for more staff of the campus dining services. Paul Bshara worked on the food truck this summer.
"I loved doing it," he said. " To see the kids' smile and be very happy to receive the meals makes me feel good that I am doing something good for the community."
No university money was spent on the program.