To tackle childhood obesity and hunger issues, the Minnesota Vikings Foundation is unveiling a new food truck Thursday that will dish up free healthy meals to Twin Cities kids in need.

The charitable arm of the NFL team says the custom-built purple Winnebago, dubbed the Vikings Table, is the first initiative for the foundation since it launched in 2017. The foundation replaces the nearly 40-year-old Vikings Children’s Fund charity and changes the team’s focus from doling out grants to creating and managing its own programs.

“It definitely is a shift and trend in sports philanthropy. A lot of teams are making that switch,” said Brett Taber, the executive director of the foundation. “We felt there was more we could do. When you write a check you don’t get to leverage all those assets.”

The food truck will work with Twin Cities nonprofits to serve free hot meals to kids as part of the Vikings Foundation’s priorities, including children’s nutrition and physical fitness and Minnesota’s achievement gap — issues that affect children from ages six to 16, the core age group of kids who connect with the team, according to an NFL survey.

Across Minnesota, more than 300,000 students qualify for free and reduced meals at schools. And obesity disproportionately affects children of color and those from low-income households.

Since many students go hungry when they can’t access the extra help during summer vacation, several school districts deliver free meals on food trucks or repurposed school buses. The Wilder Foundation has a mobile food market on a bus that brings affordable, fresh food to neighborhoods in need. And NorthPoint Health & Wellness’ nonprofit arm launched a delivery truck five years ago to bring free food to North Side and Robbinsdale residents.

“There’s a greater need for mobile [food] than I think is being met,” said Jason Viana, executive director of the Eagan-based nonprofit, the Open Door, which also has mobile programs that bring school lunches and produce to a growing number of people in need in cities such as Lakeville and Apple Valley. “There’s a lot of people in the suburbs who need help. It’s easy to not see it.”

He said he hopes the Vikings’ truck will boost awareness about what nonprofits are already doing to address hunger, especially in suburbs that lack the same resources in urban counties.

The Vikings’ 39-foot-long truck has energy-efficient appliances and rooftop solar panels. In the back, an “experience room” has an 80-inch monitor to show educational nutrition videos. Taber said he hopes the Vikings brand will help reduce the stigma for kids who seek the free meals.

“You have the opportunity with a big brand to make a difference,” Taber said. “Everyone knows the Vikings.”

Xcel Energy is also contributing nearly $1.3 million over the next five years to the food truck program.

Teaching nutrition

When it’s not serving meals to kids in need through October, the Vikings Table will sell typical food truck fare such as pulled pork sandwiches, Jucy Lucys and tater tot nachos (tatchos) at the team’s games, training camp and special events, with 100% of profits backing the free meal program.

“A lot of times when you donate to an organization, you don’t know where the money is going,” said Haley Fritz, who owns the O’Cheeze and Dough Dough food trucks with her husband, Tony. “The money is directly turning around and going into food.”

The couple will operate, maintain and staff the Vikings Table, serving meals such as pulled chicken, turkey tacos and spiraled zucchini to kids. But Fritz said she also wants to teach families how to make their money go further in the grocery store with easy healthy meals, not frozen pizza.

She said she was skeptical at first when the Vikings first approached her, but she said it’s not just about positive publicity for the NFL team.

“They have no obligation as an organization [to do this],” she said. “I think we’re going to be able to reach a lot of people. If it was just a truck without the Vikings name on it, would people show up?”

Other sports teams give back to the community, too. The Philadelphia Eagles’ foundation has a mobile eye clinic that provides free eye exams and glasses. In Minnesota, the Timberwolves and Lynx have a bookmobile to give books to kids in need through the teams’ FastBreak Foundation, which gives grants and has programs supporting military families, among others. (The teams are owned by Glen Taylor, owner of the Star Tribune.)

The Wild’s foundation distributes grants to support youth hockey and pediatric medical causes and the Twins’ community fund gives out grants, including ones that improve youth ball fields, and does programming such as introducing kids to baseball and softball.

The Vikings Foundation started in 2017 with $1 million from the Vikings and the Wilf family, the team’s owners. It holds fundraisers and has a $1.6 million budget this year.

At the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Twin Cities, which has teamed up with the Vikings for years, spokesman Tim Schober said he hopes the Vikings’ programs still benefit and increase attention to local nonprofits.

“It helps create excitement,” he said. “When [kids] can see the purple and gold, they get pretty excited about it.”