Norristown summer meals delivered through Nest Express bus

The Nest Express bus is ready to give out ice cream at Elmwood Park in Norristown.

Under the scorching July sun and in the middle of a heat wave, the line in the Norristown neighborhood Thursday stretched the street. Cheerleaders carted boxes of frozen and fresh food to cars as children bounced in front of the retrofitted school bus holding complimentary ice cream sandwiches and sunglasses.

“Here you go, did you get a chocolate milk?” Norristown Area Schools Superintendent Christopher Dormer’s cheerful voice boomed as he handed the bundled boxes of free meals to families.

Easily recognizable in a winged foam hat sporting the high school mascot, an eagle, Dormer beamed. “We’re excited to meet people where they’re at,” he said.

Thursday marked the launch of the school district’s “Nest Express,” an initiative that will bring 10,000 bundled meals each week to two parks throughout the summer — one of the most difficult times of year for students who rely on school for breakfast and lunch. The idea, Dormer said, is to bring meals to more easily accessible community locations, rather than asking parents to drive to district buildings.

Funding help from the county allowed the district to retrofit a school bus to bring food to community sites. The meal boxes — stocked with fresh carrots, yogurt, breakfast bars, frozen chicken patties, and jugs of chocolate milk — are paid for through federal and state reimbursements.

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“We really looked at this from ‘How can we serve our community better?’” Dormer said. “Serving our community better to me was, instead of asking our families to come to us to get food, we should bring the food to them more directly.”

For Robert Hazel, the pick-up location at Simmons Park was a convenient drive from his daughter’s daycare, and blocks away from his house.

“I figured on the way home, I would see if they were still out here,” he said, loading up his vehicle with meal boxes and milk.

Across the United States, summer is the hungriest time of year for 22 million students depending on school breakfast and lunch programs for meals. In Norristown, such a high volume of students qualified for food assistance — around 70% — that free breakfasts and lunches are available to all children, said David Ludwig, the district’s director of food services.

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The importance of school-administered meals was underscored by the pandemic, when schools shut down and programs quarreled to feed students in need.

“The thing the pandemic has taught us is that we have to evolve,” Ludwig said. “And we have to evolve in a way that we can make it easy to feed kids during the summertime or during the school year.”

Until just weeks ago, when Congress passed legislation extending pandemic-era expanded distribution of free meals to students through the summer, the district was only permitted to feed children on site, one meal at a time, Ludwig said. Under the new rules, families can take home bundled boxes of food containing a week’s worth of meals.

Sending home multiple meals at a time, as well as bringing food to local parks, helps to reduce transportation barriers, Ludwig said, especially during hot weeks when spending extended time outside can be dangerous.

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At Elmwood Park, Vince Carrington juggled boxes and milk jugs as his two young sons, Moses and Levi, bounded near the shady playground.

“I’ve been a Norristown resident all my life, so having it down here, the park is central — everyone knows where it is,” he said.

Up the sidewalk, school board president Phil Daniels helped Sharon Adams and her granddaughter cart meals to her car.

Daniels said he stopped by the park during his lunch break to help pass out food.

The all-hands-on-deck mode of operation in Norristown isn’t limited to summertime meals, Daniels noted. Due to staffing shortages over the last year, he said administrators and staff routine rotated serving lunch at district schools.

Marcus Blackwell, a director at an after-school youth sports club in Norristown, stopped by Elmwood Park to collect crates of milk and food for families in his program, who couldn’t make the pick-up.

Feeding children on his basketball and track teams — including making sandwiches for his players — he said, has become key during the summer.

“To know that it’s 2022 and that there are some young people who may go hungry … we’ve got to fix that,” he said.

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