New RCAS food truck provides kids with healthy lunches during summer

Two girls wait near the lime green food truck — carrots and apples superimposed to the sides —  before the lunch ladies notice them.
"It'll be another two minutes, girls," said Deb Baumgarten.
They ran off back toward the adjacent swimming pool.
"When we pulled up," said Jamie Saviong, "the kids on the water slide started jumping, 'Food truck! Food truck! Food truck!'"
The Rapid City Area Schools is in the second week of its food truck. Kids of all ages eat free at three sites across town: Jefferson Academy, North Middle School and Horace Mann Pool. On Thursday, they served taco bowl, with a side of turkey stick and a carton of milk. 
Tiffany Traversie and four children showed up early.
"It's my day off," said Traversie. She works at a nursing home and usually sends her kids to day care. "But today, I thought we'd grab lunch here and then go to the pool. My sister shared the news on Facebook."
Healthy lunches in the summer are a stretch for many students, especially those living in food deserts of north Rapid City. Just blocks from the pool and North Middle, a stretch of chain restaurants serve greasy, fried food for cheap. A grocery store is hard to find. And many children aren't accustomed to preparing vegetables.
"These school-sponsored food trucks are really popular in Texas," said Michelle Budet, who recently moved from Texas and works for SDSU Extension Rapid City Regional Center.
On Thursdays through July, Budet, a colleague and two volunteers with Teen Up, a local youth development program, accompany the food truck with a box of recreational toys and books (this week it's "Pete the Cat"). Organized by the United Way of the Black Hills Reads initiative, the team gets active play and learning for the kids after they're done with their lunches.
Earlier at North Middle, school librarian Jen Backhaus sat on a blanket with her daughter Billi, who will enter kindergarten in the fall. She was opening up the turkey stick.
"It's just such a balanced meal," said Backhaus. "If we were at home, we'd probably just make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or macaroni and cheese. But all of this? It's great."
Janelle Peterson, food service supervisor with RCAS, said the idea for a food truck started four or five years ago when districts nationwide began refurbishing school buses to deliver meals to isolated areas.
There "are areas of Rapid City where children face challenges to getting nutritious food," Peterson said in an email.
Food service funds and a grant from the Midwest Dairy Council helped purchase the truck for $142,000. It's outfitted with hot and cold storage and even a stereo system. Peterson said word has spread already around North Rapid City.
"We had about 50 today," said Baumgarten. "It's been steadily increasing."
Children stand in line and come up to the window, where Baumgarten hands them a plate. "Do you want pico?" she asks, handing them a plastic cup.
The service is much faster than a food truck, and the kids carry their trays into the grass to sit under a shady tree, much like mid-day workers on lunch break.
"I want real food," said one child to her friends, as they debated whether to walk over.
After her children went through, a mother of four asked if she could also receive a meal.
"I'm sorry," said Baumgarten, "We can't serve adults at this station." The woman nods and then walks into her van. Later, Baumgarten said the truck is not carrying cash and can sell meals for $4 at Horace Mann. "That's the first time that's happened," she said. "We're still just finding out what the need is."
Peterson said during the school year many students rely on school lunches for their only shot at fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low fat dairy options. "The grocery bill during the summer months goes up, and sometimes makes it difficult to buy all those summertime fruits and vegetables that children love."
During these at-risk summer months, the school district has decided to step in and take the burden off families.
The food truck appears throughout the summer at Jefferson from 10:50 to 11:20 a.m., at North Middle from 11:55 a.m. to 12:25 p.m., and at the pool from 12:55 to 1:25 p.m.
On Thursday, after serving at North Middle, as The Jackson 5's "I Want You Back" plays out the speaker, the three lunch ladies take a moment to drink water and come out of the hot truck. One starts to bob up and down on the sidewalk.
"It's just so nice to get out and go meet the need," Saviong said.
"I'm enjoying seeing a lot of students from our schools," said Laura Winckler.
The lunch ladies — mobile heroes for another day — start packing up the van to move on to the next site.