It's 4 p.m. when the mobile meals van pulls up to a patch of pavement behind the library at Pennsylvania and North avenues. The cardboard boxes it brings — filled with chicken sandwiches, milk and snacks — may be the first food some children have eaten all day.
Even now, nearly 40 years after the federal Summer Food Service Program was first offered in Baltimore, only about half of the 46,000 children who eat free and reduced-price meals during the school year are getting the breakfast, lunch and dinner offered at rec centers, churches and schools during June, July and August.
So this summer, the city's program is sending a van to make a weekday circuit through West Baltimore's Penn North and Upton neighborhoods to bring the food to the streets.
"The summertime is the time of the year in which a child across this country of ours is most likely to go hungry," said Kevin Concannon, an undersecretary with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "Even if the school is a feeding site, it means that kids have to find their way to the school."
At Pennsylvania and North, as a crew sets up a folding table, chairs and a tent, librarian Kinshasa Vargas-Pile tells of a 7-year-old boy dropped off hungry in the morning and left to wait all day for the food truck.
"The hunger is real in Baltimore," Vargas-Pile said.
The effort mirrors the latest push in cities and rural communities throughout the country to feed poor children over the summer months. In Baltimore, by the time children go back to school, the goal is to have served 2 million meals at more than 650 fixed or mobile sites across the city. The Baltimore Housing Office of Community Services administers the program with a handful of partners, including the Family League, which launched the mobile meals van as a permanent program this summer.
Along the mobile van's supper route one day this week, more than 150 children picked up dinner, up from about 85 a day when the van began operation in June, said Katherine Klosek, director of the Baltimore Partnership to End Childhood Hunger and a Family League employee.
With additional money from the United Way, seniors and other adults can be served, too, and the food van crew turns away no one asking for a meal.
Teddy Fisher, 42, comes with his two daughters and a goddaughter in tow, their hair freshly braided. Iona Dimory, his 3-year-old goddaughter, wants Fisher to take the crusts off her sandwich, though she declares that they are her "favorite breakfast." For Areiona, 6, Fisher peels an orange. They love the fruit, he says, but have few places to get fresh produce, except when the horse-drawn a-rab cart comes through the neighborhood. He'd like a farmers' market, or at least a better grocery store, within walking distance.
The food van program is "all positive," Fisher said, in contrast to some of the "negativity" in the neighborhood. He tries to keep the girls away from that, he said, letting them watch TV in Japanese and Spanish to expand their minds, and not letting them associate with the "bad kids."
"I take care of myself, and I'm trying to teach them to do that," he said.
The next stop for the van is nearby on Clifton Avenue, next to the Westside Elementary School playground. Someone pulled the cap off a fire hydrant on the corner, spraying children, adults and cars with water as temperatures climbed into the high 90s.
Volunteer Liz Fauntleroy, 72, kept a hawkish eye on a shaded table occupied by about a dozen mostly small boys, making sure their milk cartons were open and their trash picked up.
"These kids be playing all day, and you don't know if they're eating or not," she said. Her sister asked the program directors to put the site there, as many of the children are too young to cross North Avenue by themselves to get to the library.
Alice Nicholson, 65, another volunteer, said children in the neighborhood used to get summertime meals at Parkview Recreation Center, which the city shut down after last summer. The food van helps fill the gap, she said.
A volunteer pulled out a bucket of balls, hula hoops and other toys for the children to play with, and some splashed in the hydrant water.
"We have to get them to eat first because the toys will be a distraction," Nicholson said with a grin.
Last year, nearly 2.3 million children received meals at about 39,000 sites nationwide, a fraction of the 21 million kids and teens who received free and reduced-price lunch and breakfast at 101,000 schools. The program cost $398 million last summer.
Maryland ranks seventh in the country for its success in providing summer meals to hungry and poor children. Concannon said its accomplishments are tied in part to partnerships with anti-hunger groups.
Even with that success, the statewide participation rate is only about 20 percent. Baltimore's summer meals program reaches 50 percent of children and teens who regularly participate in the free and reduced-meals program during the school year.
The USDA's Food and Nutrition Service reimburses the local urban providers $1.94 for each breakfast, $3.41 for lunches and dinners and 80 cents for snacks. The rate for meals in rural communities is slightly higher.
The city's housing office is expected to be reimbursed $3.4 million for the meals provided over the summer. Other providers, such as the Family League, the city school district, the Archdiocese of Baltimore and the Maryland Food Bank, also will seek reimbursement.
Reggie Scriber, deputy housing commissioner, said among the efforts to notify children and parents are regular neighborhood canvasses, including a visit to the Cedonia neighborhood Thursday by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Councilman Brandon M. Scott.
"We want every child who qualifies to get these meals," Scriber said.
While the summer meals programs are available typically only on weekdays, schools and food banks stock pantries to help families stretch their resources on Saturdays and Sundays. The Family League also is considering the feasibility of expanding the mobile meals concept to weekends, and perhaps year-round service.
Free meals for children and teens
The Family League, in conjunction with Baltimore's housing agency, runs a mobile meals van that makes three stops each weekday. Participants do not have to provide ID or income verification. The program is intended for children and teens, but adults won't be turned away.
4 p.m.-4:45 p.m. — Pennsylvania Avenue library at the corner of North Avenue. Van parks on Cumberland Street.