At 4 years old, Jade Peak has no doubts about her favorite dish: grilled cheese sandwiches.
She was lucky on a recent summer day when a Lizard lunch a food truck pulled into a parking lot under a sprawling shade tree in Grand Junction’s Lincoln Park. A team of “lunch ladies” jumped out and opened a large window. A worker has set up a menu on a sandwich board in front of the truck. The best deal of the day was the grilled cheese.
A group of kids converged on the truck heading for the jungle gym and swimming pool. They soon fell into irregular queues and the lunch ladies wasted no time distributing bags of food they had prepared early that morning to the kitchens of two local schools. Lunches included grilled cheese kept warm in an oven in the food truck – the “hot meal” of the day – or PB+J sandwiches and Lunchables cheese and meat platters for those not so keen on cheese. grilled than Jade.
Each lunch came with carrot sticks, frozen strawberries and milk — edibles that meet federal nutrition guidelines. Many kids also requested a seemingly popular item: a small cup of homemade ranch dressing to dip the carrots into.
By noon, this Lunch Lizard truck and a second truck will have toured seven parks, schools and neighborhood centers and distributed approximately 800 lunches. This meant that 800 mostly low-income children did not have to go hungry on a long summer day.
With the exception of questions about their menu preferences, this is a no-questions-asked summer catering service for children and youth 18 and under in a high-needs county. More than half of the 21,000 students in School District 51 in Mesa Valley County are eligible for free lunches as part of the USDA Financial Guidelines.
During the school year, their needs can be met with free lunches in the school cafeteria. This will be complicated in the coming year as Congress recently halted funding for “universal free school meals” that were authorized during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Universal availability during the pandemic meant families no longer had to submit eligibility requests to receive free lunches. Any child who wanted a lunch could have one.
This free-for-all method is how the Lunch Lizard program has operated for eight years and how it will continue, said Dan Sharp, director of school district nutrition services.
Handing out lunches from trucks that mimic commercial food trucks is about eliminating the stigma of getting a free lunch as much as satisfying hunger, Sharp said. The kids who come in the trucks aren’t decried as “free kids” because kids of any socio-economic status can grab a Lunch Lizard. The colorful trucks are designed to be familiar, accessible and fun, with their cartoon depictions of local landmarks and a well-known local reptile, the collared lizard. “Lonnie” the Lunch Lizard smiles and offers a shiny red apple to the side of each truck.
Judging by the rows of kids jostling outside the truck, it seems to be working.
“We love taking the grandkids to the Lunch Lizard. The kids love it,” said Jade’s grandmother, Phyllis Taylor, who cares for four grandkids over the summer and relies on lunches to stretch a tight budget.
The first Lunch Lizard truck hit the streets of Grand Junction in 2015 after a hunger was acknowledged by school officials and community organizers. In Mesa County, the median household income is just over $57,000far behind Colorado’s median income of over $82,000. In some Mesa County schools, about 90 percent of students are eligible for free lunches.
“In some difficult circumstances, this might be the only meal they get in a day,” said Anne Wenzel, president and CEO of the Western Colorado Community Foundation and founder of the Lunch Lizard food distribution program.
The program began after Wenzel and Sharp discussed summer nutritional needs. Wenzel thought it would be good to bring food, via a mobile unit, to places where children could congregate on summer days. Sharp, who has a background in hotel management, was considering a similar idea. Funding for a truck was quickly put in place with the help of local donors from the Grand Junction Lions Club, Alpine Bank and Rocky Mountain Health Plans.
Sharp found an old commercial food truck in Denver that could be redesigned for lunch deliveries. That first truck soon blew its generator and had to be repaired, but eight weeks later the Lunch Lizard was painted, loaded with food and ready to roll.
Sharp said he was so excited to participate in this program because he knows how important food is for academic success, as well as lifelong health.
“Studies have shown that school nutrition is one of the main determinants of student well-being. This directs their ability to learn and their overall health into adulthood,” Sharp said. “Providing adequate nutrition also helps reduce obesity rates.”
Eventually, the first Lunch Lizard truck was replaced with a second, modernized Chicago bread truck. A brand new custom-built truck was added this summer, funded by a private donor. With more than $100,000 in other donations, Wenzel said the program could add another custom truck. The community foundation has donated over $250,000 to keep the Lunch Lizard program running smoothly.
“I just think it’s a great program,” Wenzel said. “People here are just appalled and upset to hear that the children are hungry.”
The success of the program is confirmed by the numbers. In the first year of the Lunch Lizard, 4,185 lunches were distributed; in 2021, the number of lunches was 29,225. In addition to distributing individual packed lunches to young people, the trucks also provided meals for daycares, camps and summer schools. But with the new federal cut to universal free school meals, those handouts will no longer be possible next summer, Sharp said.
Nor is the possibility of bringing lunch home. The federal return to pre-pandemic rules means children will have to stay and eat their lunches near trucks. This will again require having volunteers at each stop. Before the pandemic, volunteers would meet in the trucks and read, do puzzles or play hoops with the kids until lunches were over.
The Lunch Lizard program covers summer meals. Other organizations in Mesa County are working to fill other gaps in food accessibility. The Mesa County Hunger Alliance, a coalition of 21 churches, social service agencies and health care providers, carries out the mission of the Mesa County Plan to End Hunger program, a local spin-off from a statewide initiative.
Other program partners provide meals for migrant workers, food banks, food deliveries for seniors, food giveaways for the church, and a fledgling school effort called Snack Stations. Unopened but discarded snacks – components of about 37% of school lunches, according to Sharp – are stored in coolers and cupboards for all students to grab during the day when hunger strikes.
The child help The backpack program fills a weekend need when the Lunch Lizard is not on the road. Kids Aid distributes bags of shelf-stable food that children can easily prepare themselves. Groceries are placed in backpacks, where possible, in another attempt to eliminate the stigma of receiving free food.
“We’re kind of teaming up with the Lunch Lizard to provide those weekend grocery bags,” said Tessa Kaiser, executive director of Kids Aid.
The local program is also based on the national program No Kid Hungry Center for Best Practices for advice on mobile food distribution.
Sharp said it has received so many questions from other entities about how the Lunch Lizard program works that it has created a video to explain the ins and outs. At least one other county in Colorado has used the same idea: neighboring Garfield County painted its food trucks with cartoon characters and called its program monkey meal mobile delivery.
There’s an added benefit that goes with the Lunch Lizard program in Mesa County: Beyond the pounds of food distributed and the number of kids served, the food comes with extra helpings of affection.
” Hi my darling. I like your seahorse,” lunch lady Kim Torbic says to a shy young girl holding a stuffed animal outside the window.
“Here’s a milk for you, darling,” she said to another child.
“Oh, you’re so sweet,” Ashley Lenhardt, another lunch lady, says to a group of children who have red eyes and trail the smell of chlorine from the pool.
The children run away clutching their lunch. Some look into their bags as if they were looking into a Christmas stocking. Soon nearby picnic tables and grassy shaded spots are filled with lunch eaters.
The lunch ladies secure everything inside and the lunch lizard heads to the next site. Some of the children pause in their meal and wave. They know the Lunch Lizard will be back tomorrow. They know where their next lunch will come from.
Freelance journalist Nancy Lofholm wrote this story for The Colorado Trust, a philanthropic foundation that works on health equity issues statewide and also funds a reporting position at the Colorado Sun. This appeared on coloradotrust.org on August 2, 2022, and can be read in Spanish at collective.coloradotrust.org/es.