Waco Independent School District is taking its summer meals program on the road, delivering free lunches to children in various Waco neighborhoods in an effort to boost participation.

This summer, the district will kick off a new “Meals on the Bus” program in which two school buses will serve as mobile dining centers.

Each bus will accommodate up to 50 children, who will be able to eat their hot lunches on collapsible tables.

The buses each will target up to seven locations. Some spots to be included on the routes will include the Central and East Waco library branches, small neighborhood parks like Seley and North Waco parks, and the Estella Maxey housing projects.

The goal of the program is to get the free lunches to children who may not have transportation to the nearly 20 different free summer meal sites the district operates each year.

The summer feeding program, which runs from June to mid-August, is open to all children up to age 18, regardless of whether they are enrolled at Waco ISD.

“We’re trying to reach some locations in the city that there’s not enough kids to be able to open up a full-service summer feeding site, or there’s some access issues — maybe there’s not a facility there that you can actually set up a site,” said Cliff Reece, director of child nutrition services for Waco ISD. “This would allow us to pull up there, park for whatever period of time we have kids and then move on to the next site.”

The district retrofitted two special education buses with extra electrical outlets to suit food-service needs.

The buses are air-conditioned and feature lift ramps, which will make it easier to load hot food carts.

The buses will feature signs that identify them as part of the “Meals on the Bus” program. Eventually, if the program is successful, the district will wrap each bus with colorful decor, officials said.

Borrowed concept

Waco borrowed the concept from San Marcos ISD, which has offered a mobile food-service program for its summer feeding efforts for several years, Reece said.

The project is being funded by a National League of Cities’ Combatting Hunger through After School and Summer Meal Programs grant.

Kelsey Scherer, child nutrition outreach specialist for the Waco branch of the Texas Hunger Initiative, praised Waco ISD for trying an innovative approach to solving transportation issues that long have affected turnout for summer feeding programs across the state.

The hunger initiative assisted Waco ISD in some of the brainstorming to start the “Meals on the Bus” initiative.

“This will be a great way to remove that barrier for more children and families, so kids won’t have to already be at a site,” Scherer said.

“We’re coming up with a pretty snappy marketing campaign . . . and just talking up how it’s a fun, different and unique idea. I think just the creativity and the innovation that goes into it definitely has the potential to make it an even more attractive place to want to spend some time and make it a welcoming environment for kids.”

The district still will have its traditional summer meal sites, such as campuses holding summer school and the Bledsoe-Miller, Dewey and South Waco community centers. But the “Meals on the Bus” program will target areas of town where there may not be a convenient summer meals service location.

The district hopes to recruit community partners to offer enrichment activities, which also would help attract older middle and high school-aged students to the service.

Reece said he hopes the buses will serve about 600 meals per day. He expects the program to broaden overall participation, as well as prevent drop-offs after summer school ends, when the district typically trims the number of feeding sites.

Last year’s figures

Last year, the summer feeding program served 3,500 lunches on average per day in June, but that figure dropped to 2,333 in July and 1,831 in August.

“We’d like to keep all the sites open all summer long, but it’s not cost-effective to do that,” Reece said. “That’s the other reason we are looking at some of these mobile site options, because hopefully that will allow us to be able to get to more kids.”