A girl enjoys lunch at Parkway Apartments in Federal Way recently as part of Federal Way Public Schools’ summer meal program, which offers children up to 18 years old free lunch and learning this summer.
The chatter of children fills the air as they play soccer, basketball and play other activities at Parkway Apartments in Federal Way.
FRED, a forest green bus with a rainforest frog painted on it, parks within the fenced-in basketball court and opens its doors to serve breakfast and fun, with a side of learning as part of Federal Way Public Schools’ summer meal program. “Fun. Read. Eat. Dream.” is painted on the side in white.
In its second year of service, FRED is one of three district-owned buses that go to apartment complexes in the area to serve breakfast, lunch and/or a snack. The buses are equipped with computers, books, board games and puzzles for kids to play with after they eat — or after they eat a few bites. The bus provides food for children up to 18 years old.
On one side of the bus’s interior, a handful of Chromebook laptops are connected to the Internet, giving kids access to the websites they play on at school, said Matias Garcia, an AmeriCorps volunteer.
On the other side of the bus, a handful of laptops provide custom activities, specifically targeting K-5 children and the Common Core Standards they should be learning, Garcia said. These laptops also track data on what programs kids like to use most, he said.
Patricia Mayo said her children often get distracted from their food by all the toys. But all the toys offer learning opportunities to help the children avoid a summer lapse in learning. And her kids enjoy it, waiting eagerly each day for the bus to arrive, Mayo said.
Other children enjoy it too. When Fred pulls into the parking lot, kids shout, “The frog arrived! The frog arrived! Let’s go!”
The only complaint parents have is regarding state laws that prohibit people from taking food home, something the district has to abide by to ensure continued funding, said Adam Pazder, chef manager for the district.
Mandates state that the food must go to the children, Pazder said, which is why it must be eaten on-site.
The program serves two ounces of whole grains, two ounces of proteins, one cup of fruits and/or vegetables and one serving of dairy, Pazder said. Among the three buses, about 550 meals are served daily, he said.
Kids have to take the whole meal, but anything they don’t want can be put on a sharing table for others to eat, he said.
The challenge is finding nutritional foods the kids will eat, he said. The school district has more than 130 languages and cultures represented, he said.
“It’s hard to find those universal flavors,” Pazder said.
Kids are more likely to eat the foods they are familiar with, so the bus offers a two-week rotating menu, Pazder said. This offers familiar foods to kids, but also introduces them to new foods.
Throughout the district, 59 percent of school children are on free and reduced lunches, Pazder said.
“Many of our kids receive breakfast, lunch and a snack everyday [at school],” he said.
Asking a family to add that to a summer budget for one or more children is tough, which is why Fred and its fellow buses target complexes where many of the children on the free and reduced meal program live, Pazder said.
“We’re trying to be very targeted with the children we’re helping.”
Many schools in the district also participate in the summer meal program, offering breakfast, lunch or a snack to students who come by, as well as learning activities, said Debra Stenberg, communications director for the school district.
This year, district gym teachers have also gotten involved in the program, visiting Fred sites and engaging kids in physical activities after they eat, Pazder said.
District employees handle the food and school security does site visits. AmeriCorps members also give their time to the program.
The district accepts donations of books, games and other learning activities in good condition, Stenberg said.