A colorfully painted refrigerated cargo van dubbed the Lunch Bus wound its way through Berwyn, Cicero and four Southwest Side neighborhoods one day last week.
Each time it stopped, the children came.
Some already were lined up and waiting. Others piled out of minivans or emerged from surrounding streets as if drawn by a magnet.
Some were with a parent. Just as often, they came by themselves or with an older sibling. We’re talking everyone from infants to teenagers, but mostly in-between.
They came for the food — a simple, fresh meal in a plastic container with a carton of milk. A free lunch, if you will.
Most of them said thank you or gracias before peering inside the packaging to inspect the day’s offering — on this occasion a Caesar’s salad, pasta salad or cheese with fruit. They weren’t given a choice. Then, they smiled and were on their way.
I didn’t see anyone complain or turn up a nose or ask for more. A few asked for an extra meal to take home to a family member, but they were turned down because that’s against the rules.
“You don’t really understand until you see the line,” said Daisy Aguirre, a 19-year-old college intern from Brighton Park in her first summer with the Lunch Bus.
By the end of the day, Aguirre and Joe Brislen, a 66-year-old volunteer driver, had dispensed 388 meals.
The Greater Chicago Food Depository sends four Lunch Bus teams into the city and suburbs each weekday as part of the federal government’s summer meals program.
The program aims to benefit the same children who qualify for free or reduced-price breakfasts and lunches during the school year. The problem is that those children are much more difficult to reach in the summer.
A study found that, while 798,165 Illinois children on average participated daily in the school lunch program last year, only 112,234 connected with a summer meals program.
That gap is a matter of concern to children’s advocates, who know it means some kids are going hungry and many other are receiving poor nutrition.
The Lunch Bus program is one piece in a larger effort to fill that gap.
On this day, Aguirre and Brislen stuck to a strict schedule, visiting four churches and two libraries. Twenty minutes to a stop. No more, no less, though last-minute stragglers who often raced up out of breath were never denied.
The assignment doesn’t afford the Lunch Bus team much opportunity to chat with the kids. Still, on this route where nearly all the kids are Hispanic, Aguirre’s Spanish-speaking abilities were a plus.
“He’s the muscle,” joked Aguirre, who serves as team leader and is paid through AmeriCorps.
“Strong back, weak mind,” said Brislen, a retired teacher from Oak Park, playing along.
Each wore the distinctive green Food Depository T-shirt bearing its motto: “We believe no one should go hungry.”
In McKinley Park, I asked a little fellow named Geovanny about his favorite Lunch Bus food.
“Nachos,” he said without hesitation.
“I told you,” said Aguirre, who will be a sophomore at University of Illinois in the fall and had, in fact, told me that nachos — a healthy version — was the kids’ preferred meal.
The meals are prepared for the Food Depository by Gourmet Gorilla under a contract reimbursed through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“It’s a wonderful program. The Food Depository is a well-oiled machine,” marveled Keshia Garnett, director of the Berwyn Public Library, a new stop on this year’s Lunch Bus route.
The Lunch Bus is a reminder that, even in a world gone mad, normal, everyday challenges such as feeding the children never stop.
Not for terrorists or gang shootings or elections.