UMass food truck visits valley apartments, gives free lunch to children

The program, which is nationwide and is administered in Massachusetts by the state Department of Education, distributes free meals to children and teenagers

  • Paul Bshara, the Baby Berk food truck manager, hands meals to Ngozi Nwabunor, 6, and Ifeoma Nwabunor, 4, at Mill River Recreation Area in Amherst. FOR THE RECORDER/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Paul Bshara, the Baby Berk food truck manager, hands meals to children at Mill River Recreation Area in Amherst. FOR THE RECORDER/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Paul Bshara, the Baby Berk food truck manager, hands meals to children at Mill River Recreation Area in Amherst. FOR THE RECORDER/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Any child under 18 can get a meal at one of the BabyBerk summer stops. Above, Leon Todd, 7, eats his sandwich at the Mill River Recreation Area in Amherst last week. FOR THE RECORDER/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Corey Kachinski of South Hadley, cafe manager at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, prepares turkey sandwiches that will later be put into bags for the BabyBerk’s summer route. FOR THE RECORDER/Andy Castillo

  • Paul Bshara, food truck manager, takes inventory in Baby Berk at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. For the recorder/Andy Castillo

For the Recorder
Published: 7/19/2018 10:30:54 AM

A line of more than 60 children quickly gathered around the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s BabyBerk food truck when it pulled up at the Mill River Recreation Area a recent Friday afternoon. Within five minutes, truck manager Paul Bshara had distributed cheese quesadillas, yogurt and whole fruit sorbet to each one of them.

During the school year, Bshara serves an average of 500 college students a day. From August to April, BabyBerk can often be seen outside the Mullins Center selling concessions or at the Student Union providing students with a fast meal before classes. At the university, the food truck is iconic.

This summer, though, BabyBerk is leaving the campus to serve a different purpose, and demographic, as part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Summer Food Service. The program, which is nationwide and is administered in Massachusetts by the state Department of Education, distributes free meals to children and teenagers.

“It’s a wonderful idea. There are some kids who really need it, and others who really enjoy it,” said Annie Schwarz, owner of Kicks and Corrals Camp. Schwarz was sitting on a bench in the shade at Mill River watching a group of her campers return from the food truck. There’s no stigma to getting a free meal here, she noted, because any child can get one.

Sitting beside her, Brenda Barlow, parent to Hudson Bosch, 8, and Calvin Bosch, 5, who were playing in the rec area’s pool, said having a UMass truck deliver the meals creates a connection between the kids and the university.

“It strengthens the relationship between UMass and the community,” Barlow said.

School lunch extended

The Summer Food Service Program, which began in the 1960s, is intended to provide children and teens who qualify for subsidized school lunches through the National School Lunch Program with proper nutrition in the summer, according to Frances Canning, who works for the Department of Education and oversees the Amherst program for the state.

While there are other “closed-enrollment programs” in the area including one put on by the Amherst-Pelham Regional School District, Canning noted they only serve a certain number of children in a specific location like a summer camp. In contrast, the BabyBerk program serves anyone under 18, wherever it stops, she said.

BabyBerk visits seven Amherst apartment complexes and the Mill River Recreation Area, between 10:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, to distribute free meals such as the quesadillas, hummus wraps and turkey sandwiches. It began the three-day a week routes June 25 and will continue through Aug. 10.

“I think it’s fantastic,” says Shoshona King of Amherst, who was at the food truck earlier in the week at Rolling Green Apartments. Bshara was passing bagged lunches of turkey sandwiches, blueberries and milk to her children, Dimitri King, 14, and Arwen King, 15, through BabyBerk’s serving window.

The bright yellow truck idled in the parking lot as other children came out from their apartments for lunch. In addition to providing nutritious food, King said, the truck’s presence at the complex encourages her children to get outside and spend time with each other.

“It’s nice. It gets them unplugged,” she said.

Quality control

UMass is reimbursed for the food by the federal Department of Agriculture, said Christopher Fisher, manager of food trucks and commissary dining at the Amherst university. Each meal costs roughly $2, and is made from the same food, much of it locally grown, that’s served in the campus cafeterias, he said, noting, “the program requires extensive records be kept on payroll and food spend. At the end of the day it all needs to be a net zero cost endeavor.”

Each stop was selected in advance by the Department of Agriculture based on census data of children who are at risk for hunger, according to Fisher.

Still, “anyone can come, anyone can get a meal,” Fisher said, as long as they are under 18. “People come to the truck all smiles. The magic of a food truck hasn’t worn off of them, yet.”

The food truck pulls up and waits for the children to come. Fliers and signs are posted around the complexes to alert residents to its purpose and schedule.

After Rolling Green last Wednesday, BabyBerk’s next stop was the Colonial Village apartment complex, where Canning joined Shannon Raymond, who also works for the Massachusetts Department of Education, to record how many meals Bshara served and to make sure they’re up to nutrition standards set by the federal government. Each meal must contain a specific quality of grain, a protein, and two kinds of vegetables or fruits.

Depending on the day, meals can be turkey sandwiches, grilled cheese, hummus wraps, mac and cheese with peas, burritos or barbecue, served with a selection of local strawberries, blueberries, diced pineapple, carrots, yogurt, or whole fruit frozen sorbet, Fisher said.

The lure of the food truck

Collaborating with UMass is something that Canning has been working on for four years, she said, pausing from her documentation. Not only does the university have equipment to mass produce meals, but the BabyBerk food truck makes it possible to deliver meals directly to children, which she said is a unique.

When the university was approached earlier this year about helping out with the program, “It was one of those no-brainers — why not?” Fisher said. “We have the capacity. We have the ability. There was a need.”

In other geographical areas covered by the program, including other locations in Franklin and Hampshire counties, meals are distributed from a single location from retrofitted buses or vans, Canning said, noting that approach can sometimes prevent children who need the nutrition from getting it out of embarrassment.

In contrast, “Food trucks are cool. They’re trendy,” Canning said. “This removes that barrier.”

To her knowledge, it’s the first time a food truck has been used in the program, she said, noting it’s also the first time a state vendor like a university has been hired to distribute the free meals. Typically, Canning said, school districts are the ones selected to distribute the food.

Tweaking the numbers

The truck serves about 200 meals per day, a number that varies based on projections from the previous week and has been growing, Bshara said. Meal preparation starts the day before in the university’s prep kitchen in the Hampden Dining Commons. Cold lunches are served Monday and Wednesday, and a hot meal like the quesadillas or mac and cheese is served on Fridays.

Working in the kitchen on a recent Wednesday morning, Corey Kachinski, a manager at UMass Dining, who was putting turkey, cheese, lettuce and tomatoes onto dozens of slices of wheat bread paused to describe the process. He said preparation takes a few hours and doesn’t tax production capacity because the university’s kitchen serves mass-produced meals on a daily bases.

“Prepping in bulk is prepping in bulk, for the most part,” Kachinski said.

Once each item has been put into a bag, Bshara and Sugeils Reyes, who also works on the truck, pack the lunches into BabyBerk’s on-board fridges to keep them cool until distribution and then set out at 10:25 a.m. for Rolling Green Apartments. On average, the truck stays for about 10 minutes at each stop.

“It’s rewarding. You’re feeding kids who really need the meals. ... They’re very appreciative,” Bshara said, while carrying a plate piled high with sandwiches out to the truck.

So far, the only difficulty they’ve encountered is estimating how many meals they’ll need, Bshara said. Initially, the Department of Agriculture projected that the truck would serve 560 children each day. However, three weeks in, Bshara noted, they’ve served about half that number daily.

Looking ahead over the next three weeks, and in the coming years if the first-year project is deemed successful, Bshara says he expects the numbers will increase as more people learn about the program.

One of the reasons for low numbers, Bshara speculated, is because many kids are at camp instead of at home.

After Colonial Village, BabyBerk stopped at Butternut Farms just before 11:45 a.m. that Wednesday. Up to that point, Bshara noted it had been a slow day. They’d only served eight meals, well below their average of 40 at that point in the route.

But by the end of the day, and after stopping at Mill River at 3:10 p.m., Bshara and Reyes had distributed all 200 lunches they had packed.

“It’s been good,” Bshara said. “Our expectations are more realistic now.”


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