Not far from a Maryland library, a boxy white food truck pulls up on a side street shortly after noon. The sun is bright, and the children who begin to gather on a nearby sidewalk have been racing around outdoors.
They form a line, waiting for lunch.
“We’re hot and starving,” an exuberant 8-year-old announces as his friends laugh.
Soon, the truck’s side door is flung open, and one by one the children are handed lunch bags and bottles of cold milk in an operation that takes a page from the free lunch program offered in school cafeterias nationwide.
Summer lunches have been around for decades as a way to help feed needy children after school lets out. But advocates and educators say many more children need meals than receivethem, and some meal providers have found creative ways to branch out.
They are finding the kids who do not find them.
“It’s a way to get over the transportation barriers,” said Crystal FitzSimons, director of summer programs at the Food Research & Action Center, a national nonprofit group that works to reduce hunger in the United States.
In Kentucky, two retrofitted school buses have become roving summer cafes with daily stops at nearly three dozen parks, pools and other sites. In Chicago, four “lunch buses” wind through poorer neighborhoods of the city and the suburbs with prepared lunches and milk.
In Maryland, school systems in several areas — including Anne Arundel, Garrett, Harford and Washington counties, along with the city of Baltimore — have mobile meal operations, state officials said. It’s an approach that gets meals to children in neighborhood cul-de-sacs, on playgrounds, in recreation centers and at community pools.
“We look at it as, ‘They’re our kids,’ ” said Michael Embly, supervisor of food and nutrition services for the school system in Washington County. “To properly give them the nutrition they need over the summer prepares them to go back to school in the fall.”
School district officials say the mobile concept makes sense in sprawling Montgomery County, which has long had a reputation as an affluent suburb but includes substantial pockets of poverty.
Here, more than a third of the system’s 161,000 students — about 56,000 in all — are eligible for free and reduced-price meals. Last summer, the school system fed about 7,870 children a day, officials said.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” said Michael J. Wilson, director of the nonprofit organization Maryland Hunger Solutions. “We need to have multiple ways to reach kids in the summer to make sure they are not dealing with food insecurity.”
Like many school systems in the region, Montgomery offers meals at numerous school-based or community sites that host summer classes or programs. It also has walk-in locations. But not all children have transportation, and in some cases, they would have to traverse major roads, creating safety concerns.
A few years ago, the county’s recreation department and school officials teamed up on an effort to go mobile — to meet children where they congregate.
The recreation department put together a pop-up recreation program, and the school system provides lunch through a mobile food truck. They hope to get to children who might not be attending summer school or enrichment activities or camps.
One of the mobile effort’s stops is at the Germantown library, where 60 to 90 children participate, and the other is at the Middlebrook Mobile Home Park, also in Germantown, which serves 15 to 20 children a day. No sign-up is required, no cost involved.
“It’s definitely a way to reach more kids,” said Susan McCarron, director of food and nutrition services for Montgomery County’s public school system.
Under federal rules, summer nutrition programs, which are covered by federal funding, may operate in areas where at least 50 percent of children qualify for free and reduced-cost meals. They serve those 18 and younger who show up.
But at the mobile sites in Montgomery, it’s about more than meals. Counselors supervise relay races, water play, scavenger hunts, kickball, capture the flag, hula hooping and craft projects. It’s about three hours long, with the lunch truck arriving amid the action.
One recent day, after collecting a lunch bag and a drink, more than 60 children gathered under shade tents to eat. Many had already played games organized by counselors in a park beside the library. That afternoon, they would explore two visiting fire vehicles.
For lunch, some ate whole-grain submarine sandwiches of turkey, chicken-ham and cheese, with baby carrots and apple juice, while others tried a vegetarian option: multigrain tortilla chips, salsa, apple juice and Colby Jack cheese sticks.
Many sipped containers of milk — 1 percent regular or fat-free chocolate — as they sat cross-legged on the ground.
A counselor asked who was ready for the coming school year.
“I’m not!” one girl insisted.
Her friend was equally emphatic.
“I’m dying to go back!” she said.
Joel Singh, the recreation department’s director at the site, said the experience can be a segue to new experiences, recalling that his interest in sports as a child was sparked during a summer program. “It introduces them to a lot of things they might not have known about before,” he said.
Children who attend the program can come from varied economic backgrounds. Although the meals are critical to some families, others — including parent Gina Brown — say they stumbled across the program and found the activities a big draw, not the meals.
Brown, a mother of three from Montgomery Village who frequents the library, said her sons — ages 3, 5 and 7 — enjoy the outdoor play and sports. One day, they did an art project indoors — making a jellyfish out of paper plates and pipe cleaners.
“They love it,” she said.
The program, in its third year, is on the rise, said Adriane Clutter, a division chief in the Montgomery County Recreation Department. “The hope is that we’re able to grow and do more if it,” she said. “There’s definitely a need there.”
On the recreation side, the mobile effort is part of a broader drop-in summer activity program called “Fun, Food, Fitness” that also goes out to nine schools.
Advocates point to the importance of continuing nutritious eating during the summer recess, saying that if students are hungry during the summer, they will return to school less healthy in the fall.
The Food Research & Action Center said in a recent report that just one child receives a summer meal for every seven who rely on such meals during the academic year. Participation slipped during 2016 and again, slightly, during 2017 after a number of years of increases.
“It is very concerning,” said FitzSimons, of the food research center. “The direction is going in the opposite way, and we know we have to redouble our efforts.”
The ideal, she said, is to combine enrichment or educational programs with meals.
The combination has produced strong results, said Clutter, of the recreation department, recalling a girl of 9 or 10 who sobbed on the last day of last year’s program, saying it made for “the best summer ever.”
When it reopened this year, she said, “she was back on the first day.”