In this Tennessee city, when school's out and a colorful CHOW bus rolls around neighborhoods, hungry kids cheer.

Julie Kendrick
May 15, 2020
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This school district in Tennessee got creative to solve the problem of food insecurity among their students. Meet the woman whose bright idea made it happen.

Photo: Kristina Krug

The Situation

Summers are no fun when you're hungry. In Murfreesboro, Tennessee, 47% of school children rely on free or reduced-price school breakfasts and lunches, which, for some, are the only meals they'll eat all day. And once school is out, food insecurity becomes an even bigger challenge. For many years, Murfreesboro City Schools set up free meal sites, typically serving 25,000 to 30,000 meals each summer. But the district's supervisor of nutrition, Sandy Scheele (pictured above), knew that not everyone could make it to a brick-and-mortar location. "If they lacked reliable transportation, or had parents who were working during the hours we were serving, they wouldn't have access," Scheele says. Then, in 2015, she heard a district school bus was being retired and had an idea—what if she could repurpose it to bring food to the kids? Combating Hunger on Wheels (CHOW) was born.

What She Did

Scheele added a colorful graphic wrap to the bus's exterior, retrofitted the interior with air conditioning and diner-style tables and hit the street packed with meals. Word spread through local news coverage and social media. After the first successful summer, when nearly 43,000 meals were served, two more buses were added. The CHOW bus fleet now travels throughout the district, serving free meals to anyone 18 or under, no questions asked. "It's got all the fun and appeal of an ice cream truck, but it's serving wholesome, nutritious meals instead," says Lisa Trail, the district's director of communications. "When the kids see a CHOW bus pulling into their apartment complex or a city park, they come running." Officials from other districts in Tennessee—and across the country— have since traveled to Murfreesboro to learn about creating their own mobile summer meal programs.

Why It's Cool

Last summer, CHOW buses served close to 60,000 meals featuring fresh fruits and vegetables, some of which were even harvested from the district's school gardens. Students enjoyed a summertime bounty of strawberries, watermelon, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower and leafy greens. And Scheele always makes sure the buses are dishing out kid favorites like chicken nuggets and whole-grain cinnamon rolls. "If this program didn't exist, we'd probably be relying on hot dogs and ramen," says Jesus Fuentes, a parent of four children, ages 4 through 11. "It would be hard to replace the variety and nutritional content of these meals on my budget." What's more, since the coronavirus pandemic closed schools in March, the CHOW buses have delivered 1,000 grab-and-go breakfasts and lunches per day to 40 sites. "If there's a child who needs a meal, we'll be there for them," Scheele promises.

This story originally appeared in EatingWell Magazine June 2020.