The food truck rolled up to Roy Wilkins Park on St. Paul's North End on Wednesday, and even before the windows opened, a mom asked: "What are you guys serving today?"
"Cheeseburgers," came the reply.
Until this summer, St. Paul Public Schools served strictly cold fare — sandwiches, salads and the like — on a food truck that rumbled across the city. But this is a new truck, delivering hot meals with an emphasis on nutrition, and in the case of the cheeseburger, that means a low-sodium burger with a whole-wheat bun.
Across the country, school systems take part each year in a federally funded summer meals program geared to give kids access to free healthy meals when the lure of fast foods and sodas can take hold or when household circumstances leave some students going without.
St. Paul provides 50 permanent sites where kids who are 18 or under or those over 18 with a disability and enrolled in a school program can get a meal without registering. But like Minneapolis, which has both a food truck and a food bus, St. Paul has gone mobile, too, and it has a chef, Ricardo Abbott, who is designing popular food truck fare like tacos, rice bowls and gyros.
"I think he probably did visit some (food trucks)," Lynn Broberg, assistant director of nutrition services in St. Paul, said Wednesday. "All for research, of course."
Abbott is one of seven department employees who have been painted like cartoon superheroes on the side of the truck. He is depicted with a purple cape and spatula in hand. The truck cost $289,720 and was funded through a $100,000 grant from the Cargill Foundation, $1,695 in community donations and $188,025 in nutrition services funding.
The truck makes 15 stops a week, with the beach at Lake Phalen drawing about 50 people a day at noon on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, Broberg said. Turnout has been slow at Roy Wilkins Park, but the program is in only its second week, and nutrition services staff plan to visit the splash pad when it is busy to spread the word, she said.
Derrick Vang, 14, spotted a sign there and picked up his first meal on Wednesday. He looked forward to the cheeseburger and oven-baked steak fries.
He also is planning to return, he said. The truck rolls until Aug. 19.
On Thursday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is ending a pandemic-era practice of allowing districts to provide free meals during the school year, too. St. Paul plans to continue offering free meals to all students at 36 high-poverty schools this coming year by using $1.7 million in general fund dollars.
To the question of whether the district should cover the costs of a free lunch for students from wealthy families, Broberg noted that families who don't qualify for free or reduced price lunches still might find themselves struggling at times and that there often is a stigma attached to those who do qualify for free lunches.
"Making it free for everyone really reduces or eliminates that stigma of it being a lunch program for poor kids because it's a lunch program for everyone now," she said.
St. Paul has 28 other schools that are not eligible for the universal free lunch program. There, everyone still will get free breakfasts, but those students whose households do not qualify for free or reduced eligibility will be charged for their lunches.
For more information about where to get free lunches in St. Paul this summer, go to spps.org/summermeals.