ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Beth Dennison climbs behind the wheel of a school bus loaded with sandwiches, milk, fruit and vegetables each weekday and rattles over 30 miles of dusty Torrance County roads delivering food to waiting children.
"Just meeting the kids is a perk," Dennison said as children began boarding at the first meal site - a cluster of manufactured homes laced with dirt roads about five miles west of Moriarty.
"I'd like to see more of these sites next year," Dennison said of New Mexico's first-ever mobile meal program. "Torrance County is one of the poorest counties in the state. Lots of families have transportation problems."
Dennison isn't alone in her desire to expand the program.
Leaders of child nutrition programs view Moriarty's mobile meal program as a model and hope to replicate it across New Mexico and other rural states where children are too often stranded far from summer meal sites.
Parked nearby in a dirt cul-de-sac is Michael Gonzales, who each morning loads his two young daughters into his car - a former police cruiser - to meet the bus here. Gonzales said he lost his job last winter as a security guard in Albuquerque when a snow storm forced him to miss work.
"I can't afford to feed them fruits and vegetables every day," Gonzales said of his daughters, Ashlee Harriman, 10, and Amanda Gonzales, 6. Too often, the girls eat snack foods or "whatever I can find that's affordable."
The mobile meal site ensures that they get at least one nutritious meal a day, Gonzales said. "They wouldn't get the variety, that's for sure."
The meal site also gives the girls a chance to socialize with other kids, he said.
Ashlee and Amanda were among 27 children who showed up for a meal on Wednesday. Most came on foot or bicycle, with some driven by parents.
Turnout was light that day for the mobile meal program, which typically serves 35 to 45 children each day at the three sites, said Meghann Dallin, director of child nutrition for the New Mexico Collaboration to End Hunger, which organized the program in connection with the Moriarty-Edgewood School District.
Each child received a sack lunch that included a chicken sandwich, a small bag of baby carrots, an apple and a cup of fresh fruit. The kids sat on the bus, eating and talking for about 30 minutes before the bus rolled on.
Workers at Moriarty Elementary School prepare the sack lunches, which are placed in coolers and transported on a district bus.
The mobile program is a new wrinkle on the summer meal program, which feeds an estimated 45,000 New Mexico children each weekday at some 700 sites, such as parks, schools and community centers.
The program, funded by a $6 million U.S. Department of Agriculture grant, will provide some 2 million meals from June 1 through Friday, said Elizabeth Castillo, program manager for state Children Youth and Families Department, which oversees it.
But most summer meal sites are concentrated in urban areas. The city of Albuquerque and Bernalillo County operate about 200 meal sites this summer across the metro area.
"The summer (meal) program is really designed to work in urban areas where you have kids who are congregating for some reason," said Bill Ludwig, USDA's southwest region administrator in Dallas.
"It has been extremely difficult all across the rural United States to get this program to work, because kids are so sparsely populated," he said.
The website for the summer meals program offers a search tool for free summer meal sites in New Mexico.
The site shows 10 summer meal sites within a 20-mile radius of Moriarty. Most are clustered in Moriarty and Edgewood, with two remote sites in Estancia and Chilili.
But the nearest summer meal site southeast of Moriarty is in Vaughn, located 65 miles away by the most direct route.
In 2010, about 24 percent of Torrance County families with children 18 and younger had incomes below the federal poverty level, which is about $23,000 a year for a family of four, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Ludwig said he believes Moriarty's mobile meal program could serve as a national model for getting food to rural kids in the summer.
The program is a natural fit for rural school districts, which have the staff and equipment to prepare meals and buses that typically sit unused in the summer, Ludwig said.
"I think they've got a pilot going there that could be emulated, not just in New Mexico, but in a lot of our states that have rural children," he said.
A school district can create a mobile meal program at a modest cost because the USDA reimburses school districts for the cost of food and labor, he said.
New Mexico is located in the southwestern region of the U.S. Inhabited by Native American populations for many centuries, New Mexico has also been part of Imperial Spain, part of Mexico, and a U.S. territory.