Zoey fidgets with anticipations while her mom mixes the “taco in a bag” ingredients. The 7-year-old spins on a red stool, reminiscent of a ’50s diner, inside the Marana Cares Mobile.
The mobile center is a retrofitted school bus, out feeding Marana children during the fall break, Oct. 8 to 12. An initiative of the Marana Unified School District, the bus is painted with the MUSD logo and has a sign out front that reads “Kids Eat Free.”
Zoey’s mom, Rosey Finley, brings her three children every day. Taco in a bag is their favorite meal. Finley’s kids are part of the 39 percent of MUSD students who qualify for reduced-cost and free meals. The bus is out serving lunch every school break, near areas with a high density of children who receive meal benefits during the school year. Finley said the daily meal really helps out.
“It helps for people who are really in need,” she said. “When you don’t want to eat a hot dog, you just come here.”
Finley eats a taco in a bag herself, after helping Zoey and 10-year-old Maddie get their taco ingredients sufficiently mixed. Her 12-year-old, Alex, fends for himself. All kids eat free at the Marana Cares Mobile, whether they’re MUSD students or not, even young siblings who aren’t school age yet. Parents can eat for a dollar. Finley said she doesn’t usually eat, but she’s making an exception for taco in a bag.
The bus is air-conditioned with handicap access and interior and exterior serving areas. It even has WiFi and Chromebooks available so the kids can be entertained while they eat.
Ann Gibson, who normally works in food service at Estes Elementary School, helps kids get the computers connected to Wifi. It’s Gibson’s first time working on the Marana Cares Mobile. She sees how much the program helps the families and gets a lot of enjoyment from seeing the kids happy and fed.
The Marana Cares Mobile has served nearly 7,100 meals since launching in 2015. Over the fall break they served 270, setting up daily in two locations.
Alvin Ramsey, a MUSD bus driver for the last 16 years, drives the mobile feeding center and said he’s seen how important the service is for the community and that it lets people know that the district cares about them.
MUSD Superintendent Doug Wilson said in a statement that the Marana Cares Mobile allows the district to give back to the community.
“Nutrition is critical to a child’s ability to learn and be successful,” he said. “This service allows us to meet those needs during times when students are not at school so they are better prepared to return to school ready to learn.”
As the Finley kids are finishing up their meal, three more families arrive. Jenny Broadhead stands outside the bus to watch her baby, asleep in the car, while her five other kids, from kindergarten through sixth grade, pile into the bus.
This is the first school break Broadhead has checked out the mobile, and she thinks it’s a wonderful service for those who are food insecure. Broadhead doesn’t identify herself as being food insecure, but says everyone can use a little help.
“We wanted to get outta the house and have some lunch,” she said. “And [the kids] think a cafe in a school bus is the coolest thing ever.”
Besides the beloved taco in a bag, the bus is serving meals like bean and cheese burritos, chicken tenders and PB&Js, all accompanied with sides of veggies and a milk.
In 2014, Marana voters passed a School Improvement Bond. As part of MUSD capital improvements, the district updated their fleet of school busses. The Marana Cares Mobile was one of the old busses, which the district retrofitted rather than retiring.
MUSD Director of Public Relations Tamara Crawley said they came up with a design that’s bright, colorful, friendly and inviting. The bus’ inaugural trip was the winter break of the 2015/16 school year.
The Marana Schools’ 2340 Foundation covered some of the primary costs of getting the bus rolling. The foundation continues to be the initiative’s primary sponsor. Besides the foundation, the initiative runs off other private donations, corporate sponsorships and charitable foundations. During the summer break, it’s funded through the Summer Feeding Program, a federal program funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture
Crawley said each year, the district adds more locations where the bus sets up. She said the service not only helps feed children during the school break but encourages families to come together. People know they can rely on what has become a tradition for many families, she said.
“This has been a phenomenal service and something the district takes great pride in,” she said.