SALIDA -- The frame is community goodwill, the paint job a stimulus grant. Public funding fills the tank, and hungry kids keep the wheels in motion. The windows look out on Sa-lida through the eyes of Billy Reid, the driving force behind Salida Union School District's newest take on the power lunch.
The Mobile Wellness Command Center wheels out 800 bag lunches and 225 breakfasts each weekday from the Salida schools' central kitchen. The meals are free to those 18 and younger, $2 for adults for lunch, $1 for breakfast.
"There's no income guidelines. No paperwork to fill out. It's just about kids getting food," Reid said last week. The wheeled meals are an extension of Salida's summer food program and will serve during the school year as a mobile nutrition classroom.
Boxes of iced milk, frozen juice and bagged peanut butter sandwiches rode in the cleared R.V.'s living area. Reid envisions tables and benches bolted there by next summer and air conditioning. Back in what once served as a bedroom, desks are waiting for chairs.
When complete, 24 students will be able to watch videos on nutrition, participate in farm-to-school programs and learn how to eat better, Reid said. In the summer, it will go back to serving mobile meals.
"This is cutting-edge," Reid said. "Nobody else is doing this."
The R.V., decorated sunshine yellow and farm green, is a point of pride after a difficult year for Salida schools. The superintendent quit midyear after finding a large accounting error, and the district laid off 19 teachers and closed a school to shrink a $3.25 million budget gap.
Nutrition services, Reid said, is self-supporting -- even the command center.
The R.V. was sold to the district for $8. A $5,700 grant paid for the graphics on the outside. Interior refitting is being done in-house.
"I'll get somebody to donate two plasma TVs. I'll get a grant. My middle name should have been Grant instead of James," Reid said with a chuckle.
Hunger brings in revenue
The key, he explained, is participation. Finding kids who need to eat is what brings in revenue and justifies grants.
R.V. driver Kathy Tiggemann does her part.
"I always look down the street. I never leave if I see a bunch of more kids coming," Tiggemann said between calling out to her regulars during a lunch run.
"She's really great with the kids," said Mary Chaney, grandmother of eager eater Jerry, 5. "This is something they look forward to. It's a really great program."
Tiggemann credits children such as Lupita Padilla, 8, who first spread the word about the free lunch on the block.
"My aunt said, 'Go tell the children's moms she's giving away food for free.' I told, I think about six (families), and they all started coming," Lupita said.
And they keep coming, for food that rolls right into their neighborhood. The mobile meals are sack lunches with sandwich, milk or juice and a snack item.
"Personally, I like the snack items to be regular snack foods" such as frozen juice cartons or even a cookie, Reid said. "We tried the broccoli florets and baby carrots thing, but it didn't go well. I'm all for promoting fresh fruits and vegetables, but I don't want to turn children into bunny rabbits, you know? There has to be a balance."
Salida also provides hot lunches, fruit and salads at sit-down lunch and breakfast sites in four schools.
"Everybody eats," Reid summed up. "Some families are eating because they have no other means. Some are just trying to cut their food budget. ... And that's what we want, to help people in hard times."
Looking up and down the block in front of the Primitive Baptist Church, he said, "If you noticed the kids, not one of them seemed to be in danger of obesity. Now, I know obesity's a huge problem -- for adults, too. But what about the kid that's hungry. What about that kid where the only decent meal that kid's gonna get is the breakfast and lunch at school."
That's what drives Reid. That's what keeps his team, and their R.V., rolling.
Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2339.