Dean Transportation Converted School Bus Offers Moveable Feast

August 11, 2016

Judy Putnam, Lansing State Journal

LANSING - If you see a school bus driving down the road sporting a cornucopia of brightly colored vegetables on its sides, chances are you’re watching the latest hunger-busting tool available in the capital region. 

It’s a mobile kitchen, complete with a stove, two sinks, a fresh water tank, two freezers and lots of climate-controlled prep space to bring fresh produce to those living in Lansing’s food deserts. 

The YMCA of Metropolitan Lansing unveiled its “Healthy Living Mobile Kitchen” Thursday at a festive event where firefighters cooled off laughing kids at the Baker Donora Center Park by spraying water on them from a fire truck. Dignitaries, including Lansing Mayor Virgil Bernero, expressed excitement over the converted school bus. 

It’s a good example of nonprofits, businesses, and government programs coming together to confront a difficult problem that continues despite an improving economy: hunger. 

About one in every six families in Michigan struggle with quality or a lack of food, according to a 2015 survey by the United States Department of Agriculture. And locally, one in four Ingham County families lives in poverty. A similar share resides in high-poverty neighborhoods, according to Kids Count in Michigan. 

Y officials said that one in four mid-Michigan kids go to bed hungry each night, citing stats gleaned from a 2009 Feeding America report. 

Baker Donora is a neighborhood off Baker Street just west of Pennsylvania Avenue. The neighborhood community center offers a government-funded summer feeding program for children that’s operated by the YMCA. 

By late August, the mobile kitchen will deliver lunches there and at three other feeding sites run by the YMCA. During the school year, the bus will be employed to deliver healthy snacks and kitchen demonstrations at the Lansing School District’s after-school programs. 

Casey Thompson, executive director of the YMCA, also said the bus also will be used to bring more nutritious foods to seniors at local senior centers. 

The Y has been in the business of fighting summer hunger since 2011. In 2013, it expanded to year-round service by adding after school programs. 

“The Y has always been so much more than a gym and swim,” said Jim Schmelter, chair of the board of directors of the YMCA of Metropolitan Lansing and senior vice president of PNC Bank. “The new Healthy Living Mobile Kitchen will allow us to go mobile with our programs.” 

The bus idea has been more than a year in the making. 

When YMCA officials approached Kellie Dean, president of Dean Transportation, about a mobile kitchen, Dean said it took him about two seconds to say yes. 

But he wanted to provide more than kids eating sack lunches on a bus where the seats were removed. 

The result is a modern kitchen where not only food can be provided, but also kids can learn about gardening and preparing healthy foods. 

“It’s a mobile education center for healthy living,” Dean said. 

Dean donated a 54-passenger yellow school bus with a wheelchair lift and $25,000 to develop programming. Other donations were $20,000 from SodexoMAGIC, Magic Johnson’s food service company, and $20,000 from the Walmart Foundation. In addition, several companies provided paint, flooring, and the decorative wrap on the bus exterior.

Thompson said that one of the programs will offer a farmer’s market to kids where they will exchange play money for healthy food. It teaches financial literacy as well as healthy eating.

“This bus serves as a good reminder of the importance of nutrition, food education and food access,” she said.