Early in the spring of 2013, summer transportation funding was reduced in Federal Way, Washington. More than half of the district’s 22,000 students were eligible for free or reduced-price summer lunches, but they would have no way to get to school for their midday meal.
So in March, Mary Asplund, director of the school district’s nutrition services, began planning a solution with other district employees. “We’d been talking for years about repurposing buses,” says Asplund. She consulted with the district transportation shop manager, Tom Nutt, who alerted her to three buses that had recently been taken out of student service but whose engines had 300,000 more miles of reliable service in them.
Architects and engineers worked to design an interior that would meet code, and then the buses were custom-fabricated with appliances, furnishings and Wi-Fi. Asplund received grants from the United Way, the USDA’s Meals for Kids, and others to partially pay for the $130,000 conversions. The buses were christened FRED (Fun, Read, Eat, Dream), and rolled out in mid-June.
When the kids ran out to meet the new commercial lunch delivery coaches, they found bright green buses with happy frogs painted on them. As they mounted the steps, they saw eight new laptops sitting on Formica tables. Cabinets above were packed with books and games. Outside, an awning was extended to give the kids a shaded area where they could eat.
“On the last day of summer we had our second-highest attendance yet,” Asplund notes. “We felt we truly reached the kids.”
Asplund stresses that the program is not just about distributing the 300 meals that each bus carries four days a week. “During the summer, the kids in these neighborhoods are not progressing their reading and math skills,” she says. “When we feed these kids we also want to elevate their minds.”