Kyle Micken, Nutrition Director, pictured with his children, Lucia and Kyle Lucas.
Metaphorically speaking, most summers start off with a bang or a splash. In Douglas County, however, the sunny season began with a beep.
That’s because the Lunchbox Express, a mini school bus converted into a mobile, meal serving station, recently began its route delivering free, healthy, summer meals to children in the rural areas of Roseburg.
The Express once transported children, but Kyle Micken, father of two and nutrition director at both Roseburg and Winston-Dillard school districts, undertook the project of retrofitting the minibus to bolster Roseburg county’s Summer Food Service Program participation. Now complete with food warmers, refrigerators, and a fresh coat of bright yellow paint, it is ready to serve lunches to kids all summer long.
In honor of the recent launch of the Lunchbox Express and of Father’s Day, we caught up with Micken to discuss how he was able to get the minibus back on the road and how fatherhood has impacted the way he views child hunger.
How did you come to work with child nutrition programs?
Right after the birth of my second child, Kyle Lucas--who is now three--I was working in healthcare. I decided that working nights, weekends and holidays was not the best thing to do with young children. I was interested in working with schools, so I transferred from healthcare to schools.
When you first started working with school nutrition programs, did you view your role as related to hunger prevention?
Not at first. When I first interviewed with schools, I asked what the job entailed. They said I would be running the food service for school districts, feeding the students breakfast and lunch. At first I didn’t think anything of it. When I moved up to my first school district, Milton-Freewater, in northeast Oregon, I saw how poor the area was. About 80 percent of their students qualify for free and reduced meals. The more I worked, the more I saw that there is a large need for feeding and taking care of the kids and starting new programs. That’s when I really got involved and started working on in-school, afterschool and summer programs.
Can you explain how the Roseburg Public School’s Lunchbox Express mini-bus program works and how you see it helping reach more kids in Douglas County?
We’re in day four for the Lunchbox Express. The first day was a little rocky; we didn’t see the numbers that I was expecting. But on day four, we have almost tripled the numbers that we had on day one. The word is out there. We are getting kids fed. Parents are taking them to these areas that are closest to the house, and that’s the whole purpose of Lunchbox Express.
It’s meant for towns, like Roseburg, that have rural areas that we can drive out to, park the bus so that kids and families that live around the area can walk there safely and enjoy a meal. It gives peace of mind to parents, when they’re at work, to know that their kids can walk to the park or walk to the local school and get a nutritious meal. They’re not just eating fried food or junk food. They’re eating a full, balanced meal. We’re already in talks with school districts to the south for next year about getting another bus, and retrofitting it to serve hot and cold meals in the southern part of Douglas County. We have thirteen school districts in Douglas County. Roseburg, being the largest district, has eleven schools, but we have other districts that only have two schools and, financially, they can’t afford to pay someone to run the program without losing a lot of money. By partnering up and having one goal, which is to feed the kids in the community, this allows us to do that.
What inspired the idea behind the Lunchbox Express and how did you go about converting the bus into a meal-serving station?
I actually got the idea about three years ago. I was reading through a magazine and saw that they had a full size bus, which they had cut a couple of windows out on one side and were serving sandwiches and milk. I thought, that’s a cool idea! I realized that we could do something similar in the area of Milton-Freewater. We had a mini school bus that was on our inventory for Nutrition Services, and we used to take meals out to our programs. I thought, we could take the seats out of that, slap some nice, colorful paint on it that would get kids’ attention, and go out to some of these rural communities where we could serve about 30 or 40 kids at a time.
But everyone was doing the cold lunch, and I thought, let’s see if we could do a hot lunch. A deli sandwich for each of the forty-four days of the summer--you’re going to get pretty sick of them. Why not slap a generator in the back of the bus so you can put in a warmer and a cooler? We could serve for a longer period of time, keeping the food out of the danger zone.
With the support of Oregon Department of Education (ODE) and a summer startup grant, I was able to do that with Milton-Freewater. It was a great success. The numbers this year have actually doubled from what they were last year at this time. I shared the idea with Roseburg Public Schools, and they were gung-ho about it if we could get the funding. I, once again, applied for a grant through ODE for the bus. The maintenance department helped out this year. They painted it, put on the decals, put in the generator, and it’s been a success so far.
What are the results that you think we’ll see as a state if we invest more in fighting child hunger through innovative programs like the Lunchbox Express?
I think we’re definitely going to see a lot more participation in the community. We’re going to see more families having a lot more to do with the community and interaction with our programs because there is hunger all over. At one of our sites, we constantly have kids that come back to school on Monday and ask for seconds and thirds because they haven’t had enough to eat over the weekend. It’s programs like the Lunchbox Express, programs like the CACFP afterschool supper program that allow us to serve the kids every meal that we can. We also pack backpacks for part of that program, and we work with our local food bank. We try to do everything we can for the kids to give them the nutrition and energy they need to be successful.
What advice can you give to other districts or communities that want to create new child nutrition programs, or increase participation in their current programs?
You just have to have the mindset of “where there’s a will, there’s a way.” Most of these programs are not just going to start up magically. You have to apply for grants. The resources are out there. The programs are out there. You just have to know the end-all, which is feeding the kids.
How has being a father of young children affected your commitment to preventing child hunger in Oregon?
I think it just drives it home. I would not want anything less than the best for my kids, and I expect that for all of the kids that I serve in our community and in all the communities throughout the country. The more Lunchbox Expresses that we can have, the more meals we can serve to the kids in need and the more jobs we can provide for people in the community, the better the community and the state will be. You look at the kids in the schools, and you look at your kids and think: I wouldn’t want my kid to be hungry for the whole weekend, why should they?
Happy Father’s Day, Kyle, and thank you for all you do!
The Lunchbox Express makes its debut at the Roseburg School District Summer Meals Kickoff Celebration.