It’s half past noon when the Bus Stop Café pulls into its final stop at West Side Court to deliver meals to neighborhood children. A little girl no more than four years old boards the bus to receive her lunch, likely the only meal she will eat that day, when a remarkable detail about her appearance catches my eye: she isn’t wearing any shoes. The barefooted girl eats her meal in silence while a swarm of young children chatter around her in between mouthfuls of apple slices and chicken sandwiches. This is a typical service for the bus which administers meals to more than 230 children at three locations daily throughout Salem County during the summer months, and this little girl’s appearance seems to go unnoticed amid the noisy clatter of the many hungry children who have boarded the bus today.
With a nearly nineteen percent child food insecurity rate, Salem County hosts the highest percentage of food insecure individuals (adults and children, alike) in South Jersey according to Feeding America’s 2017 Map the Meal Gap study. But with a population of only 64,000 (compared to 510,000 in Camden county), this rural area is often widely overlooked when it comes to helping those in need. For Chandra Pitts, a Salem County native who founded One Village Alliance in 2009, a non-profit focused on helping children and their families through education, entrepreneurship, and the arts, and the organization that facilitates the operations at the Bus Stop Café’s sites, these statistics illustrate her own identification with the need that exists in the area. “There is a huge void here in Salem, and over eighty-seven percent of the kids here are not meeting the literacy standards by the time they graduate the third grade,” states Chandra whose organization provides summer learning programs to 125 area youths. “None of the education we’re providing would be as beneficial without that food component.”
One of the organization’s youth counselors who works with the Salem kids during the summer while commuting from his residence in Delaware, explains the impact from an outsider’s perspective. “In Wilmington there are parks everywhere and the kids have something to do and here, they don’t have that,” says Coach Wayne, “I see how many people come to the bus and how underserved the area is, it’s kind of disheartening, but the benefits of having the food helps a lot of people.”
Having served more than 8,300 meals during the 2017 summer season, the Bus Stop Café has provided children and parents with a temporary source of relief during the three months it operates in coordination with the Summer Meals program, but with hunger an ever-present issue for the community, there is still more services need to continue helping those in Salem. For Coach Wayne it’s critical for the kids. “They have so much light in them, and it’s so hard for them to shine. If we can keep helping them, they can keep shining.”