"It is not okay with me!" the mother said. She turned back to her son, who was wailing, and yanked him back into his seat. "Sit on your butt," she said. "What did I tell you about wasting?"
Anderson watched the mother for a few seconds and wondered if this would be one of the times when she needed to call child protective services to make a report. It had happened three times on buses already in the past two weeks, once for possible child abuse and twice for possible neglect. Stress, anger, desperation — these were behaviors she had been told to anticipate on the bus at a time when a record 10 percent of children live in homes unable to provide adequate, nutritious food. "Low-income families are being pushed to the very edge," one of her training manuals had warned. But now Bible walked back from his driver's seat and put his hand on the young mother's shoulder. "It's hot. We're hungry. Nobody is in a good mood," he said. "So I'd like to tell a joke. Have you heard that this bus has 2050 air conditioning? That means 20 windows down and 50 miles an hour."
The mother appeased him with a smile. The 2-year-old went back to eating his sandwich. The meal ended, and the bus emptied out.
"We got them through it," Bible said.
"Thank goodness," Anderson said.
"Fifteen minutes and 750 calories," Bible said.
"And again tomorrow," Anderson said.
The bus pulled away.The mother in pink slippers took her 2-year-old back to a trailer with no air conditioning. The 12-year-old boy walked away cursing about bologna. This is what the bus left behind at every stop along the route: children who were not quite satisfied, and whose appetites would build for 23 hours and 45 minutes until the bus returned.
At Cedar Grove, the first stop, all five Laughren siblings returned to their single-wide trailer, back into the vacuum of their summer. Their mother usually took the family's only car to work, leaving the children stranded in the trailer park. Admission to the nearby swimming pool cost $3 per person and they only had $4.50 among them. The cable company had cut off their service, and they had already spent the morning watching a DVD of "Fast & Furious" twice.
"I am so freaking bored," said Courtney Laughren, 13, walking over to their refrigerator 21 hours before the school bus was scheduled to return. Inside she found leftover doughnuts, ketchup, hot sauce, milk and bread. "Desperation time," she said, reaching for a half-eaten doughnut and closing the door.
Desperation had become their permanent state, defining each of their lives in different ways. For Courtney, it meant she had stayed rail thin, with hand-me-down jeans that fell low on her hips. For Taylor, 14, it meant stockpiling calories whenever food was available, ingesting enough processed sugar and salt to bring on a doctor's lecture about obesity and early-onset diabetes, the most common risks of a food-stamp diet. For Anthony, 9, it meant moving out of the trailer and usually living at his grandparents' farm. For Hannah, 7, it meant her report card had been sent home with a handwritten note of the teacher's concerns, one of which read: "Easily distracted by other people eating." For Sarah, the 9-month-old baby, it meant sometimes being fed Mountain Dew out of the can after she finished her formula, a dose of caffeine that kept her up at night.
And for Jennifer, their mother, 32, desperation time meant the most stressful part of her day began when she arrived home at 6 p.m., after another 12-hour shift as a cook at a nursing home.
"I'm back," she said now, dropping her keys onto the floor of the trailer, collapsing onto the couch.
She had spent her day preparing meals for $8 an hour in an industrial kitchen at the nursing home: 50 servings of breaded pork chops, rolls and macaroni salad — unless, of course, residents requested something else, in which case she cooked to order. She prepared chef salads, chicken soup and sweet-potato pies until the leftovers filled the refrigerator and stacked on the counter. A few weeks earlier, a boss had spotted her taking some of those leftovers home and threatened to put her on probation. So now Jennifer had returned to the trailer empty-handed, with five more dinners left to make for her children.
She always worried about the basics of caring for her family — "Home. Job. Food. I never hit that jackpot all at once," she said — but only in summer did their situation become so dire that she regularly asked her children to rate their hunger on a scale of 1 to 10. When her kids were in school, they ate a total of 40 free meals and 20 snacks there each week — more than 25,000 government-sponsored calories that cost her nothing. Her $593 in monthly food stamps usually lasted the entire month. They ate chicken casserole and ground beef for dinner. But now, with school out, she was down to $73 in food stamps with 17 days left in the month. "Thank God for the bus," she said, but even that solved their problems for only one meal a day.
She walked into the kitchen, collected what items remained in the pantry and set them on the table for dinner. "Buffet's ready," she announced. The children ate corn chips, Doritos, bread, leftover doughnuts, Airheads candy and Dr Pepper.
"I'm still hungry," Courtney said a few minutes later, 14 hours before the bus returned.
"Me, too," Jennifer admitted.
Her food stamps could be used for cold food but not hot food, and the nearby grocery store sold pre-made sandwiches for half-price after 8 p.m. She loaded all five kids into the car and drove a mile to the supermarket. They chose three subs from a case that glowed under fluorescent lights. They shared two, mushing pieces of bread for the baby, and then Jennifer wrapped the third sandwich to take home.
"For breakfast," she said, and they drove back to the trailer and went to bed.
The kids awoke at 9, two on the bed they had found at Goodwill and two more on the box spring. They watched "Fast & Furious." They ate the leftover sandwich.
At 11 a.m., Courtney stood by the window, rocking the baby and watching for the bus. Three other children from the trailer park were already waiting outside, picking rocks off the road and throwing them at a nearby tree. They heard the bus before they saw it, big tires crunching gravel. "Food's here!" Courtney yelled, alerting her sisters. Before they were ready to leave the trailer, Bible, the driver, walked over to find them. By now he knew the regulars on his route, and he always made sure they were fed.
Bible had lived in Greene County his entire life, but the trailer parks on his route reminded him of Belize, where he had traveled on a mission trip a decade earlier. He had spent a week there building a basic shelter for a homeless man while 70 other homeless people watched, wondering if Bible might build them houses, too. What he had experienced then was the same combination of fatigue and helplessness he felt now, looking inside the Laughrens' dilapidated trailer. In this part of the country, in this time, no amount of sack lunches would ever be enough.
He knocked on the door. Courtney and her siblings opened it.
"We have turkey, crackers and pears today," he said. "You hungry?"
"Always," she said, and they followed him back to the bus.