About 50 children take cover from the summer sun under a row of trees next to the West Belmont branch library while waiting for a green van to arrive.
When it does, parents and their children line up to receive lunches handed out by green-shirted workers.
The van — dubbed the Lunch Bus — is there for about 20 minutes before heading to the Austin branch library, where more food will be handed out.
The Greater Chicago Food Depository has distributed free summer lunches to kids since 2010 — a response to the Great Recession. Now, nine years after that recession officially ended, the organization says they serve as many children as they ever have.
“During the school year, low-income children throughout Cook County get free or reduced-priced breakfast and lunch at school,” said Paul Morello of the food depository. “When the summer begins, many kids no longer have access to those meals.”
The Lunch Bus stops at libraries, parks and summer camps — 24 Cook County locations in all. Half are on the South and West sides. The program runs through Aug. 31; students return to Chicago Public Schools on Sept. 4.
Since 2010, the program has distributed 240,000 meals. On average this summer, the Lunch Bus hands out 800 to 1,000 meals a day, Morello said.
“For so many kids in our community, the summer is a time of uncertainty. It’s a time of food insecurity,” Morello said. “So the lunch bus helps bridge that gap by providing hope and food for kids in need.”
The food depository is a member of Feeding America, a nationwide network of food banks.
Feeding America also publishes an annual report, “Map the Meal Gap.” The latest report, using 2016 data, found nearly 13 million U.S. children — 460,000 in Illinois — lived in what the report calls a “food-insecure home,” meaning households where there may not be enough to eat.
Cook County ranked fifth-worst county in the country; 197,000 children live in such households. Los Angeles County (439,010) and the collective five boroughs of New York (348,500) ranked worst in terms of food insecurity for children.
And nearly a third of those children in Cook County may not qualify for federal assistance, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly called “food stamps.” That’s because parents can still have a tough time feeding their children even when their family’s income is above the federal poverty line.
According to No Kid Hungry, a campaign to solve hunger and poverty, only 14 percent of children who qualified for free or reduced school lunches received free summer meals in Illinois.
Morello said other summer meal programs also exist in Chicago, but not enough people know about them. They are going door to door in some communities to spread the word.
Generally, Lunch Bus meals include fruit, vegetables, a carton of milk and a sandwich.
Ronald Martin Sr. lives in the Austin neighborhood and brings his three children to receive lunches every day. He and the children spend a lot of time at the Austin library during the summer anyway, he said, to stay up on their studies.
The free lunch “helps them when they skip breakfast in the morning because of them not being in school,” Martin said.
More important to Martin is the lunches’ nutritional value. He worries often about the food his children eat.
“I think the access to this bus is giving the kids the right protein and vitamins besides eating all that junk food,” Martin said. “They just need to eat healthy food, that’s what kids need.”
There are no income requirements for receiving a free meal from the Lunch Bus, as long as recipients are under age 18.
Parents can find other summer meal programs at Summer Feeding Illinois or by texting FoodIL to 877877.