A silver food truck pulled up outside Johnson Parkway Apartments in St. Paul just before lunchtime on a sunny Friday. Workers promptly set up a chalkboard easel featuring the day's menu.
Meat and cheese, apples, carrots, milk. No prices.
"Who's hungry?" asked Sandy Hall, a St. Paul Public Schools nutrition services staff member. A line of children formed before the serving window opened.
"Me!" they sang, raising their hands at once.
With school out, workers across the state are handing out free meals to children through food truck windows and other sites set up in parks, recreation buildings, libraries and even hospitals. The Summer Food Service Program has become a ritual, but this year Minnesota is trying to expand an initiative that dished up 3.4 million meals last year.
The number of children who get federally funded summer meals has slowly increased, from 16% of kids who receive free or reduced school lunches in 2015 to more than 19% in 2018, according to data from the Minnesota Department of Education. There were 319,760 children eligible for discounted school meals in Minnesota in 2018.
"We continue to grow it, but of course we would like it to be faster," said Daron Korte, an assistant commissioner with the department who oversees nutrition programs.
Helping to raise the profile of the program, Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan recently met up with a food truck in Roseville bearing the sign "Kids and teens: Get your free meals here."
She said Gov. Tim Walz's administration is trying to raise awareness and expand community partnerships to make sure children are getting nutritious food.
"It's one of the most important pieces," Flanagan said. "Of course, making sure we are building kids' brains, giving them fun things to do in the summer — but also making sure they have access to healthy food."
Although the state administers the summer food program, it is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which spent about $10.8 million on the program in Minnesota in 2018, up from $7.6 million five years ago.
About 200 schools, nonprofits and community organizations partner with the state to give out the food at more than 1,000 meal sites, Minnesota Department of Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker said. The agency is encouraging community partners to be creative and go where kids hang out locally, she said.
While anyone under 18 can show up and get a meal, the organizations target areas where 50% or more of the population receives free or reduced school lunches.
"What we have heard from students and their families ... was that one of the anxieties around the summer break was not having access to the school meal program," Ricker said.
Workers staffing the truck on a recent Friday had more to offer than Lunchables-style packs of deli meat and cheese and chocolate milk.
One staff member brought out a box of bubble guns and a bubble machine, triggering squeals of excitement from the kids. Kid-friendly versions of Top 40 hits played from a stereo as nutrition services supervisor Erin George handed out bagged lunches.
"They have the boom boxes going, they've got bubbles, they've got sidewalk chalk and [they] just make it fun and friendly, and that's what we should be doing, removing as many barriers as possible for kids to get a good meal," Flanagan said.
Shar Pue was one of the parents who brought her three young children to the food truck at the Johnson Parkway site. She said her daughters often ask her when it will be there.
"My kids, they want to come eat," she said. "It's good food."