GREENEVILLE, Tenn. — It was the first day of summer in a place where summers had become hazardous to a child's health, so the school bus rolled out of the parking lot on its newest emergency route. It passed by the church steeples of downtown and curved into the blue hills of Appalachia. The highway became two lanes. The two lanes turned to red dirt and gravel. On the dashboard of the bus, the driver had posted an aphorism. "Hunger is hidden," it read, and this bus had been dispatched to find it.
The bus was empty except for a box of plastic silverware and three oversize coolers that sat on green vinyl seats. Inside each cooler were 25 sack lunches, and inside each sack was what the federal government had selected on this day as the antidote to a growing epidemic of childhood hunger — 2 ounces of celery sticks, 4 ounces of canned oranges, chocolate milk and a bologna sandwich, each meal bought with $3.47 in taxpayer money.
On the outside of the bus, the familiar yellow-and-black design had been modified with the bold lettering of the U.S. economy in 2013: "Kids Eat FREE!"
Here, in the rural hills of Tennessee, is the latest fallout of a recession that officially ended in 2009 but remains without end for so many. More than 1 in 4 children now depend on government food assistance, a record level of need that has increased the federal budget and changed the nature of childhood for the nation's poor. First, schools became the country's biggest soup kitchens, as free and reduced-price lunch programs expanded to include free breakfast, then free snacks and then free backpacks of canned goods sent home for weekends. Now those programs are extending into summer, even though classes stop, in order for children to have a dependable source of food. Some elementary school buildings stay open year-round so cafeterias can serve low-income students. High schools begin summer programs earlier to offer free breakfast.
And late last month came the newest iteration: a school bus retrofitted into a bread truck bouncing along a potholed road near the Blue Ridge Mountains. It parked in a valley of 30 single-wide trailers — some rotting in the sun, others swallowed by weeds and mosquitoes alongside the Nolichucky River. The driver opened his window and listened to the utter silence. "It feels like a ghost town," he said.
A 5-year-old girl saw the dust trail of the bus and pedaled toward it on a red tricycle. Three teenage boys came barefoot in swimsuits. A young mother walked over from her trailer with an infant daughter in one arm and a lit cigarette in the other. "Any chance there will be leftover food for adults?" she asked.
It was almost 1 p.m. For some, this would be the first meal of the day. For others, the last.
The driver opened the bus door and made the announcement he would repeat at six more trailer parks on this day.
"Lunch is served," he said.
The driver's name was Rick Bible, and his 66-mile route through the hills of Greene County marked the government's latest attempt to solve a rise in childhood hunger that had been worsening for seven consecutive years.
Congress had tried to address it mostly by spending a record $15 billion each year to feed 21 million low-income children in their schools, but that left out the summer, so the U.S. Department of Agriculture agreed to spend $400 million more on that. Governors came together to form a task force. Michelle Obama suggested items for a menu. Food banks opened thousands of summer cafes, and still only about 15 percent of eligible children received regular summer meals.
So, earlier this year, a food bank in Tennessee came up with a plan to reverse the model. Instead of relying on children to find their own transportation to summer meal sites, it would bring food to children. The food bank bought four used school buses for $4,000 each and designed routes that snake through some of the most destitute land in the country, where poverty rates have almost doubled since 2009 and two-thirds of children qualify for free meals.
"We got ketchup?" Bible said now, loading supplies onto the bus before heading out for the day.
"Yes," said Morgan Anderson, a food bank employee who worked on the bus with him.
"Ice? Hand sanitizer?"
Bible and Anderson were beginning their second week together on the route, which made seven regular stops in five hours, Mondays through Fridays, delivering 66 sack lunches with 750 calories each. Government rules required them to stop for 15 minutes at each trailer park to make sure children ate their lunches on the bus. Anderson, 22 and pursuing her master's degree in dietary studies, tested the temperature of the coolers every hour and kept inventory of food in a color-coded binder. Bible, 58 and laid-off from a furniture factory, sneaked extra fruit cups to the kids and told stories as long and winding as their route.
Their job on the bus included enforcing a long list of rules from the USDA: No giving out seconds, because the federal government reimburses only 2 percent of their value. No extra milks. No children taking food home. No free meals for adults over 18 unless they are disabled. On Anderson's first day, she had watched three men come on board, sweaty and unshaven after a morning working in the strawberry fields. "Are you under 18?" she had asked them. "Yes," one had said, even though she suspected it was a lie. The men had eaten quickly and left, never returning to the bus on subsequent days, and lately Anderson had begun to worry about them, blaming herself for their absence. Had she scared them away? Were they going hungry because of her? Why had she bothered to ask about their age?
"You learn that there are rules, and then there's the reality of the people you see on the bus," Anderson said.
On this day, what she saw at the first stop was five siblings arriving in clothes still stained from the pizza sauce they had been served on the bus the day before. "Did you get a chance to change today?" Anderson asked one of them, a 10-year-old girl. "Into what?" she said.
Next, at the second stop, a 7-year-old whose parents were both at work arrived carrying his 1-year-old sister in nothing but a diaper, spoon-feeding her juice from the bottom of his fruit cocktail cup. "She can't eat chunks yet," he said.
At the third stop, a high school football player pleaded for extra milk; at the fourth, teenagers fired rifles at cans up the road; at the fifth, always the most crowded, kids, parents and dogs waited in the shade under the trailer park's only tree.
"Finally!" one of them said as the bus pulled in. He was a 12-year-old boy, shirtless and muddy with half of a cigarette tucked behind his ear, and he barged onto the bus and grabbed his lunch. "Bologna again?" he asked, studying his sandwich.
"I'll take yours then," another boy said, grabbing for his bag.
"No fighting," Anderson said, as she handed out 15 meals and walked toward the back of the bus, where a young mother in a tank top and pink slippers was sitting with her 2-year-old son. The mother opened the toddler's fruit cup and, a minute later, the little boy stood up on his seat, laughed and tossed the fruit cup out the school bus window.
"How dare you?" the mother said, turning to the toddler, slapping his bottom hard enough for the bus to go quiet, then pulling her arm back to slap him again.
"It's okay," Anderson said, hurriedly reaching into another bag for a replacement cup of fruit, breaking the rule about seconds.