A new, custom food truck made in Michigan City, Ind., will serve free meals this summer in Tullahoma. Its schools’ nutrition program borrowed this Salvation Army canteen service vehicle last year. Courtesy photo.

By Clint Confehr

TULLAHOMA, TN — A mother of nine cried while realizing a school nutrition program food truck would visit her neighborhood regularly.

“She was so happy,” recalls Tullahoma Schools Nutrition Director Angela Cardwell. “We’d just taken a huge burden off her shoulders. She didn’t know how she’d make ends meet last summer.”

Now, Tullahoma’s buying a truck from Your Dream Food Truck. The Indiana manufacturer added a fold-out step for children to reach the kitchen window. It’s the first school nutrition program in Tennessee to buy a custom-made food truck. Nutrition program officials statewide confirmed that for Cardwell. State officials had no model for the bid call.

Murfreesboro Schools Nutrition Director Sandy Scheely has a converted school bus and oversees thousands of meals, as do other big districts, Caldwell says with admiration. “Most who use school bus conversions serve … shelf-to-table food;” pre-packed meals including sandwiches and chips. Several nutrition directors in Tennessee want custom trucks. Getting one is “an extensive endeavor I don’t want to say who, if they can’t.”

Nashville offered meals at several locations June 4 to July 13.

Last summer, Tullahoma served about 500 meals daily from a borrowed truck. “The number of meals increased by about 75 percent when we started serving by the truck,” Cardwell says. Summer meals were first served at a public library and to “Kool Kids” at a building with special education and the alternative school.

Knowing there’re more kids, she sought to feed more.

“When we got the truck, we wanted to serve what you see on a food truck.” She lists chicken and waffles, burgers, hot dogs, corn dogs, nachos, barbecue and snack packs with a muffin, string cheese, yogurt, frozen fruit juice, and a vegetable like baby carrots with ranch dressing.

“We cook from a central kitchen and start on the road at 8 a.m.,” she says. “If we go earlier, they’re sleeping.”

Your Dream Food Truck proprietor Roland Otte says Tullahoma’s truck could “generate money for the system at festivals and teach culinary skills on a real platform.” It’s a 27-foot, nine-inch, 6.25-ton food truck. Its GM gas engine, Otte jokes, takes it from zero to 60 mph in 4.5 minutes. At nine feet and a few inches tall, it has: a 36-inch refrigerated, two-drawer chef-base; a 36-inch flat top grill; and three work-stations.

May 6, Cardwell drives the $107,000 truck to Tennessee. Service resumes May 29.

“When we extend our school-year,” she says, “our funding reimbursement is extended.” Summer 2017 food sales netted $6,000. Federal money through state education departments reimburse school nutrition programs. School cafeteria sales help fund self-sustaining budgets. Cardwell’s had an “excess balance.”

Tullahoma’s cafeteria workers saw children “loading up on food on Fridays and then eating us out of house and home on Monday,” Cardwell says. District enrollment is 3,500. More than half eat free or reduced-price lunches. Nearly 42 percent get that deal at breakfast. Others pay full-price or have their own lunch.

Cardwell’s on two community boards: 5 Loaves 4 Kids; and Better Together. She was referred to the Salvation Army in Winchester. Without emergencies, its emergency canteen truck is garaged and driven in parades.

“Our busiest week had about 14 stops” at vacation Bible schools, football practice, band camp, Girl Scouts, a science center and poetry camp, Cardwell said. She drives the truck “2-3 weeks straight during the summer to be involved” and give workers a break. She supervises 50 people at schools cafeterias. Some work summers.

As for the mother of nine at public housing, other than government assistance, Cardwell concluded from a public parking space; “She has a sister who comes to her house every once in a while. I don’t know how often she’s there. We try not to ask too many questions. We will feed any child, up to age 18, who comes to our truck. It’s a good-faith service. If they look 30, I might ask.”

Clint Confehr

Clint Confehr — an American journalist since 1972 — first wrote for The Tennessee Tribune in 1999. His news writing and photography in South Central Tennessee and the Nashville Metropolitan Statistical...