At Common Threads' food truck, the fare is free
March 20, 2023 at 3:02 p.m.
The lime-green food truck parked near the basketball courts at Carl Cozier Elementary School Saturday morning wasn't selling tacos, waffles, dumplings or slices of pizza. In fact, the oversized vehicle emblazoned with the words “Let's eat! Fresh and tasty food made to order” wasn't selling anything at all. The fare was free.
As kids and parents, who were on site for a volunteer work party at the school garden, lined up in the spring-like weather to sample small plates of sliced carrots, broccoli, parsnips, celery and four different kinds of hummus (plain, beet, carrot and green herb), Laura Plaut and Carly Renner of Common Threads Farm were on hand to tell them about the goals for the mobile eatery.
The long-simmering project by Common Threads — a nonprofit founded by Plaut in 2007 which currently helps manage more than 20 school gardens in Whatcom County and whose mission is to connect area youth to healthy food — aims to bring free meals directly to low-income youth at community centers, parks, housing complexes and schools throughout the county. The event at Carl Cozier was the first of five stops at work parties at area elementary schools meant to introduce the community to the truck.
Renner, the cooking program manager at Common Threads, said as spring progresses, they will start serving scratch-cooked meals including produce from school gardens and local farms, combined with hands-on food and cooking activities. Menus will be online, and a QR code on the side of the truck will also direct people to it.
“People can taste everything, or just what they want,” Renner said. “One of the things we decided we really wanted was a lot of choice for kids. That helps kids to be more adventurous and excited about it.”
To help facilitate the process, a mirror located above the food line gives would-be diners a better view of what they can order. At every point, Plaut said, they want kids to know they have options. She explained that even with the meal program components required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) — including having protein, vegetables, fruits, grains and dairy available — it's still possible to provide an array of menu items.
“The standard is that all of those components need to be offered to kids and there's very prescriptive amounts,” Plaut said. “The beautiful piece is that there's still choice for the kids and what they choose to take — as long as they're taking the right number of components.”
Plaut said the vision is for the truck to operate year-round. During the year, she said, there are a lot of gaps for after-school meals; many kids go home to environments where “there's not a lot to do and not a lot to eat.”
When Common Threads started creating after-school meal programs, it was because the then-principal of Carl Cozier Elementary noticed a correlation between kids who were having behavioral challenges at school and those who lived in a nearby affordable housing complex. He invited Common Threads into the conversation about what the kids' lives were like outside of school.
An apartment manager at the housing complex shared a story about a young girl being raised by a single mother. Her father lived in Idaho. Her mother worked multiple jobs and was gone a lot, and one day after school she called her dad and had him order a pizza and large Coke to be delivered.
“She was hungry. She was alone. She resourcefully called her dad in Idaho and got him to order it,” Plaut said. “That was her nourishment. It's great she got fed, but we can do better than that for our kids.”
Soon after that was when Common Threads started its after-school programs, which have acted as a way to help build community around food and food education. The food truck will enable even more connections.
Plaut said the fruition of the yet-to-be-named food truck has been a long time coming. In August 2020, Common Threads got its first round of funding from the Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction and the Washington State Department of Agriculture, with additional local support from the PeaceHealth Foundation and the Eleanor and Henry Jansen Foundation. Another round of funding came in 2021. The truck physically rolled into Bellingham in January 2022.
Inside the truck is a milk dispenser — offering USDA-reimbursable meals includes making milk available to kids — but you won't find a deep-fryer. On the roof are solar panels which make it possible to not have an on-site (and loud) generator. Soon, sandwiches, tasty wraps, savory soups, crunchy salads and fresh bowls will be on the menu, bringing gustatory goods to the community.
While the food truck fare will always be free for kids, the community can help by making donations or hiring the truck to come serve food at their organizations' events. Additionally, Plaut said they're looking to contract with local farmers to grow produce.
Renner said the schedule of the truck is still a work in progress. They have events scheduled over the next few weeks at different school events, and during spring break in the first week of April, they'll be offering meals Monday through Thursday at Regency Park Apartments and Sterling Meadows. Summer is when they'll go big, serving meals through the USDA summer food service program.
“We'll be going into more rural areas,” Renner said, “finding the gaps where kids aren't getting meals otherwise.”
To find out more about Common Threads Farm's food truck, the nonprofit's mission, and how you can help, go to commonthreadsfoodtruck.org.