HUDSON — A Pasco County school bus, its interior converted into a diner, stopped at a mobile home park off U.S. 19 Wednesday and School Superintendent Kurt Browning, taking on food-service duties for the day, stood ready to serve lunches.
Within minutes, children strode across the parking lot toward the lunch bus, which carried meals prepared at Hudson Elementary.
There was Jaslene Rogero, a 5-year-old who is fond of pizza and apple sauce.
There were the Gonzales brothers — Jonathan, 8, Steven, 6, and Kevin, 4 — settling in elbow-to-elbow to munch on their meals.
“Need any help?” Browning asked, and soon the superintendent, who more typically spends his time hiring principals or perusing $1.2 billion budgets, was providing an assist with ketchup or replacing a straw that dropped to the floor.
Browning said he likes to delve into the intricacies of district operations when he can, rather than sit in the district offices in Land O’ Lakes, learning about them from afar.
“I want to know how it works,” he said. “It’s one thing to hear how it works. It’s another thing to see it.”
So on this day, Browning was just another lunch room — or lunch bus — worker, loading meals onto the bus, opening milk cartons and wiping off counters.
The lunch bus idea arose a few years ago at Gulfside Elementary in Holiday, where Principal Chris Clayton realized he had plenty of needy children who didn’t seem to make it to the school for the free summer meals provided there. Clayton decided to take the meals to the students, and the lunch bus was born.
The concept worked well enough that the district expanded it to include more schools that have a large population of low-income children. This summer, five schools operate the buses. They are Hudson Elementary, Gulfside Elementary, Gulf Middle in New Port Richey, Pasco Elementary in Dade City and Lacocchee Elementary.
“The need is significant,” said Browning, who plans to ride the Pasco Elementary bus next week. “We could put five more buses on the road and it would still not be enough.”
Essentially, the lunch bus is an extension of the 2014 Summer BreakSpot free meal program, which Pasco offers to children up to age 18 at schools that serve low-income students. The school district operates the program in partnership with local agencies, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Last summer, the district served 177,000 meals to children at 54 sites, three of which were lunch buses.
When it’s a normal day — without the superintendent riding along — a lunch bus has a two-person crew, the bus driver and a cafeteria worker.
Karen Huntoon, a bus driver for 26 years, said she enjoys the summer lunch-bus gig and the children clearly appreciate the meals.
“It’s so much fun to watch their faces,” she said.
Turnout varies by stop. Sometimes it might be a handful. In Hudson Estates off Little Road, though, about 60 children typically appear and a line forms because at best 20 can be seated comfortably.
The lunch crew hopes next year to add an awning off the side of the bus so an outdoor table can be set up beneath it.
While the children chomp on bologna sandwiches or assemble do-it-yourself pizzas, the bus visit becomes a social occasion for parents, cafeteria worker Patti Burke said.
This time it also became an opportunity to lobby the superintendent.
Dulce Chavez mentioned that her daughter, Dulce Saucedo, 10, who is about to enter sixth-grade at Hudson Middle, is a gifted student. Chavez told Browning that Pasco doesn’t have as many gifted offerings as she would like to see to challenge her daughter, whose favorite subject is math.
Browning said it’s a legitimate concern. He assured Chavez that the district has been working to improve on that front.
Chavez said she brings her children to the bus nearly every day. In addition to Dulce, there is April Chavez, 1. Also, on days when he doesn’t have summer school classes, her son, Juan Saucedo, 8, comes as well.
“They love the lunch, especially pizza day,” Chavez said. “Pizza day is their favorite.”