Elizabeth Lazaro wanted to spend her day off work having fun with her kids.
On a recent sunny, scorching July afternoon, she brought 7-year-old Joshua and 5-year-old Julisza to La Villita Park, located in Chicago’s South Lawndale neighborhood. The family of three, along with some friends, enjoyed the park’s large playground and cooled off in its splash pad.
“This is the closest thing to us,” said Lazaro, a lifelong resident of the neighboring Little Village community. “You can do a lot of things here without having to go far. Somewhere where we grew up.”
To their surprise, La Villita Park is also a stop for the Food Depository’s Lunch Bus.
Every year, the Lunch Bus mobile distribution lifts up families in need by offering thousands of kids across Cook County free meals during the summer months. These meals offset the free or reduced-priced meals children often receive during the school year.
This year, the Lunch Bus returned to pre-pandemic norms, offering kids meals to eat on site rather than grab-and-go boxes.
“[The Lunch Bus] came in at the perfect time,” Lazaro said. She’s grateful for community programs like this, she explained, especially as food prices rise.
Families with children are more likely to face food insecurity. According to Feeding America, the national network of food banks, an estimated 1 in 6 families with children in the U.S. face hunger.
All photos were taken by Nancy Stone for the Food Depository at the Lunch Bus stops in South Lawndale, Justice, Chicago Heights and Lansing.
This year, the Lunch Bus’ city stops also partnered with the Chicago Park District’s Rollin’ Rec program. As the Lunch Bus provides food, the Rollin’ Rec bus pulls up to offer kids like Julisza and her brother games and other physical activities.
Lazaro started working at a home improvement store this year and recently received a promotion. But getting through the pandemic as a single mom was tough, she said. Lazaro credits local programs, particularly through her kids’ school, with help finding food and other resources.
She’s been planning a move to give her small family a change of scenery; “a breath of fresh air,” as she described. But Lazaro doesn’t want to move too far from where she’s called home for the last 32 years; especially, she said, as she sees positive changes emerging throughout the neighborhood.
“There’s a lot of good things happening to the community — like this,” she said. “This is great.”
Olivia Salazar, 2, eats her lunch on a picnic bench outside the Lansing Public Library. She and her mom, Mariana, come to the library to wait for Olivia’s older sister, who attends the library’s summer youth program.
The meals help both of her kids try new foods, Mariana said, like cold cuts and snap peas. On days when they visit the library, Olivia knows to expect the Lunch Bus.
“She’ll say, ‘Mommy, lunch,’” Mariana said.
(From left) Siblings Zakariah, 3, Gabby, 5, and Ebbah, 8, eat their Lunch Bus meal together. As of July 18, the Lunch Bus has served more than 3,200 meals; an average of 130 meals a day.
Those meals are served across three routes in the city as well as the West and South Suburbs.
Nationally, and in Illinois, Black and Latino families with children are disproportionately at risk of hunger. According to an analysis of Chicago metro data collected earlier this year, 32% of Black households with children, 28% of Latino households with children and almost 17% of white households with children experienced food insecurity.
Gail Stephens cares for her seven grandchildren. She brings the kids, ranging in age from 6 to 12, to the Lunch Bus at Chicago Heights’ Smith Park every day, unless it’s raining.
Stephens, 73, retired for the first time in 2006 after working at her mother’s daycare for 36 years. She then worked as a housekeeper for another 6 years but stopped after she suffered from heart failure. She’s been on medications since and went through heart failure again in 2017.
Her love for her grandkids, she said, is what keeps her going.
“They watch after me,” she said. “They call me mama.”
Including the Lunch Bus, the Food Depository is partnering with nearly 160 summer meal sites this year to feed kids when school is not in session.
Ximena Abarra, 5, picks up lunch along with her mother Daisy and baby sister Camila.
Leticia Solis, 11, (right) and Anissa Solis, 5, of Burbank pick up meals at the Justice Park District. Anissa will enter kindergarten this year and Leticia will start sixth grade at a new school. This upcoming school year, Leticia is most excited to play sports. Her favorites are volleyball, softball and basketball.
Their mother, Hilda, said the lunch program is helpful because she works full time for a local bank. On the days she works from home, food is one less thing to worry about.
“It’s definitely easy to grab something healthy,” she said.
Twins Aaron and Anna Peters, 10, visit Smith Park over the summer amid their busy summer schedules. They participate in swimming and culinary lessons as well as a math program at the local library.
In addition to picking up a meal, their mother Iris said coming to the park is Aaron and Anna’s time to socialize. They’re currently homeschooled, so it’s a chance to play with their friends from their old school.
“They come and run and play with them, and then they come and get the food,” Iris said.
To find the nearest summer meal site to you, text FOOD or COMIDA to 304-304.
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