On Tuesday, Candice Moronez and three of her children waited patiently outside of Woodrow Wilson Elementary School.
They had joined about 140 other children awaiting Danville Public Schools’ newest effort in the fight against childhood hunger — a brightly colored food truck.
The meal being served was country-fried pork steak with gravy, southern-style green beans, a fruit cup and milk or water.
“Sounds good,” said son Isidro Moronez as he waited in line.
Daughter Kathaleena Moronez said she looked forward to enjoying the fruit cup.
The new food truck — bought by the school system for $42,000 — parks at Ballou Park as well as at the elementary school.
“This is just another strategy ... that we’ve tried all year to ensure that our participation rates for breakfast and lunch increase,” Danville Superintendent Stanley Jones said.
Every Monday through Thursday during the summer, except a couple of days around the Fourth of July, the food truck will roll to each location with free meals for children from infancy to 18 years old, or 19 year olds with a disability. Adults can eat for $3.65 per person.
The idea came from brainstorming ways to get more food to more children while also following current trends.
“Food truck popularity is rising and rising,” said Phillip Gardner, Danville Public Schools director of child nutrition. “At Danville Public Schools, we’re always looking for ways to just be creative and liven it up. … Food trucks are fun to hang around. It gets participation, too.”
Mary Jane Moronez stood near the truck and said, “I think it’s good to have new stuff.”
Employees served up about 600 meals during the food truck’s first week on the road.
It’s not the first year the city school system has had a summer feeding program. In fact, this season marks the sixth year. But it does mark the first year for the food truck.
“It’s always helpful during the summer,” Candice Moronez said of the food offerings.
Last year alone, the program gave away 32,000 meals to hungry children. There were 32 designated sites in 2018, including schools, churches and other organizations. This year, there are 31 sites.
The area need for free meals for children comes in light of a study conducted by Feeding America Southwest Virginia — headquartered in Salem, it’s the Virginia branch of the national food bank Feeding America — which revealed one in eight people in the region face what is known as food insecurity.
Food insecurity references a lack of access to enough food for an active, healthy life for members of a household coupled with limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods.
Not all families facing food insecurity deal with the crisis all the time, but sometimes make difficult decisions between paying bills, such as for housing or medical reasons, and buying nutritionally adequate food.
In Danville, Feeding America Southwest Virginia reported a food insecurity rate of 20% and estimates $3.7 million need to quell the issue. That means slightly more than 8,100 of the city’s estimated population of 40,693 face food insecurity.
Pittsylvania County’s numbers look slightly less daunting at 12%, meaning that slightly more than 7,300 of the county’s estimated population of 60,949 face food insecurity. With the average meal price slightly higher in the county — $3.13 compared to $2.61 in Danville — Feeding America Southwest Virginia estimates $4 million is needed to combat food insecurity in Pittsylvania County.
With efforts like the free summer meals program, the city school system hopes to bridge the gap between the one in six children in the region who suffer from food insecurity and access to healthy meals.
“In a lot of the cases, children in our community may lack access to nutritious meals,” Gardner said. “We give them the most nutritious meals that we can.”
Children who visit one of the feeding sites can count on getting more than hastily thrown together sandwich. Each child receives a well-balanced, nutritionally adequate, freshly prepared meal. The food truck is a way to get more of those meals to more children.
“We’re just simply trying to think about if we have children who need access to food, what can we do operationally to meet their needs?” Jones said.
Every day, the meal consists of a main entrée, a vegetable side, a side of fruit and a choice between milk and water, much like the fried pork steak meal served up to the Moronez children on Tuesday.
No matter a family’s socio-economic situation, every child who comes to one of the sites receives a meal free of charge. Children may walk from home or roll up in a multi-million dollar Bugatti — it doesn’t matter, the meal is free.
“We don’t want any gray areas,” Gardner said.
The summer feeding program is funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Another grant-funded program by the USDA also provides breakfast, lunch and snacks to all children who attend a public city school when class is in session.
“We want to carry that over into the summer months,” Gardner said.
Local educational facilities offering summer meals include George Washington High, Johnson Elementary and Gibson Elementary. Each offer breakfast and lunch free of charge to children in the community every Monday through Thursday.
Breakfast occurs at each location from 7:45 to 9 a.m. Lunch takes place at each school from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.
The food truck stops at Ballou Park from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. Monday through Thursday and parks at Woodrow Wilson Elementary from noon to 1 p.m.
“That feeling of feeding kids is just gratifying,” Gardner said. “Seeing that smile on that kid’s face when they’re eating a nutritious meal, that’s gratifying to me and my staff.”