Chow Town

A ‘chow bus’ named MARV takes food to needy kids in Kansas towns

The Meals and Reading Vehicle is the Iola school district’s effort to provide nutritious meals to students during the summer. In a breakfast stop in Iola, server Crystal Jones (from left), helped MARV’s first customers, 8-year-old Akayah Atwell and Lynsey McCann, 7, peel their oranges.
The Meals and Reading Vehicle is the Iola school district’s effort to provide nutritious meals to students during the summer. In a breakfast stop in Iola, server Crystal Jones (from left), helped MARV’s first customers, 8-year-old Akayah Atwell and Lynsey McCann, 7, peel their oranges.

With sausage biscuits in coolers and milk on ice, the “chow bus” hit the streets.

Kathy Koehn, in a booth two rows back, looked nervous. What this old bus was about to do early Wednesday in this small Kansas town had never been tried before, and this thing was her doing.

As school districts everywhere struggle to get breakfasts and lunches to low-income kids in the summertime, Koehn, Iola’s school nutrition and wellness coordinator, managed to talk administrators out of an old bus and then got high school vocational students to convert it into a traveling diner.

They flipped some seats around to make eight booths with wooden tabletops. Art students painted the outside with bright fruits and vegetables.

Koehn’s hope for MARV — yes, the bus is named MARV (Meals and Reading Vehicle) — is to serve 400 meals a day, free, during stops mostly in the district’s poorer neighborhoods of low-income housing, mobile home parks and neighboring smaller towns.

Other districts have used buses to take food to kids, but Koehn thinks Iola, where 65 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-cost lunches, is the first to feature onboard dining with little bookshelves at each table.

“It may flop, but you have to think outside the box,” she said early Wednesday as food service workers loaded sacked breakfasts — sausage biscuits, fresh fruit and milk — into the bus’s large coolers. “We have to get the food to where the kids are.”

Bus driver Warren Johnson had MARV rolling down Cottonwood Street through Iola, population about 5,700, about 100 miles from Kansas City.

Koehn had used local media to spread the word that MARV was coming.

First day: Food loaded. Coolers full. Milk on ice. The kids were going to love it.

As Johnson approached the first of several 20-minute scheduled stops, he laid on the horn to signal arrival. Right on time: 9:30 a.m. sharp.

Not a kid in sight.

“I don’t see anybody running over here,” Johnson said from behind the wheel as he scanned the neighborhood.

Koehn’s face looked like she’d thrown a party and nobody showed up.

“Honk some more,” she said.

Food service worker Crystal Jones then noticed a couple of children a block or so away.

Koehn got out and called to them — asking if they wanted to get on the bus and eat.

The girls, third-graders or so, looked unsure, perhaps even thinking “stranger danger.” They didn’t know Koehn. And the bus, with its wild paint job, didn’t look like any school bus they’d ever seen.

They walked on. Koehn took out after them.

“I got to sell this thing,” she said.

Rolling model

President Barack Obama would probably like MARV.

The president said earlier this year that more needs to be done, that more creative efforts need to be mounted to get healthy food to kids when schools are out for summer.

The administration has pushed to increase participation in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Summer Food Service Program, which is expected to serve more than 200 million free meals to children 18 and younger at approved sites, but officials know a lot of children still get missed.

According to Harvesters-The Community Food Network, 15 million children in America face hunger every day. A family with two children must provide more than 200 extra meals during summer vacation when children do not have access to school meals.

The problem is even greater in poorer rural areas and small towns, where children might be more isolated.

That’s a big hunk of southeast Kansas. According to 2015 figures from Kansas Action for Children, the child poverty rate for Allen County, where Iola is located, is more than 26 percent, compared with 18 percent for the entire state.

The Iola school district, like many others, serves free breakfast and lunch at school buildings during summer. Some districts also use vacation Bible schools, swimming pools and day care centers as places to find and feed kids.

“But we have a lot of kids at home during the day because parents work and they can’t get to the places,” said Koehn, who is also the district’s homeless liaison. “I knew we needed to reach more kids and go to more places.”

So she took the idea of going mobile to her superintendent, who also happens to be her husband.

“Over half of our kids eat free during the school year, so we know we have a problem like a lot of rural America,” Jack Koehn said in his office.

He also happened to have a bus that just turned 25 years old, meaning it could no longer transport students.

“In a sealed bid, we’d probably get only seven or eight hundred dollars for it,” Koehn said.

So he and the school board green-lighted MARV.

“If this works, we think this could be a model for other districts,” Koehn said.

Money from the Summer Food Service Program comes from the USDA. According to the latest figures, the reimbursement rate for self-preparation rural sites is $1.98 for breakfast and $3.47 for lunch.

The Iola bus, which cost $1,300 to convert, will run five days a week, serving breakfast and lunch this summer. Officials budgeted $645 for fuel and $3,000 to pay drivers.

Vocational agriculture students did a lot of the heavy lifting. They pulled the seats and built the booths. A woodworking class made the tabletops, complete with “Iola” etched in the wood.

Kathy Koehn told art students she wanted the outside “bright and happy.” They obliged.

Iola transportation director Scott Stanley watched Wednesday as food service workers loaded the bus.

He’s used to transporting students, not feeding them.

“No, we’ve never done anything like this,” he said smiling. “This is a new one.”

Moms like it

Back to Kathy Koehn, hot on the trail of a couple of girls.

She caught them — and talked to a mother.

They all headed to the bus.

“Come here, Lynsey, come sit with me,” Akayah Atwell, 8, told her friend as they took a rear booth.

“We’re the first customers.”

That first stop netted about five kids. A mom said the bus was a great idea and her son would be a regular.

Next stop, same thing — Koehn getting out and going after kids, and again parents praising the program once they found out what it was.

“It will really help a lot of kids and families around here,” Pam Stogsdill said as she sat with her son, 6, while he ate and read a book.

At 10:30 a.m., the bus went back to the school to switch from breakfast to the lunch menu of fajita chicken wraps, corn salad, fresh cauliflower, oranges and milk. It then headed to Gas and La Harpe, two small neighboring towns.

“Somebody’s waiting!” Koehn exclaimed as the bus parked near La Harpe City Hall.

The boy, a sophomore wearing headphones, even ran down the sidewalk to the bus. When he was done eating, Koehn made him promise to tell his friends about the bus.

The bus later stopped at the Iola swimming pool. That’s where the kids were. But only a few climbed aboard to eat.

Koehn went to find out why. She did, coming back shaking her head and motioning over her shoulder.

“We can’t compete with the ice cream truck.”

The first day’s total for the chow bus: 47.

On Thursday, Koehn sent an email to The Star. Those first two stops where she had to chase kids down on Wednesday? Eight kids were waiting at each when the bus arrived the second day.

Donald Bradley: 816-234-4182