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    At exactly 10:17 on a cool June morning, a school bus outfitted with colorful pictures of oversized produce turns into a gravel parking lot. It exhales to a stop. Mary Hull looks out the window. Just two minutes late and already about a dozen elementary-aged kids — some in shorts, others in loose pajama pants — who live in nearby mobile-home parks bounce in line. All the faces look familiar, each one a regular at the Bus Stop Cafe.

    For the past three years, Hull has spent much of her summer aboard the Bus Stop Cafe, a mobile food program run by Jefferson County Public Schools. (Hull works as the cafeteria manager at the Academy @ Shawnee during the school year and has worked in school food services for three decades.) At 10:19, the line grows to 17 kids, then quickly to 22. Cars pull into the lot, crunching gravel, and more kids pile into the single-file line. Hull, a feisty, barely five-foot-tall woman with a giant smile, greets each child on the bus. She and the bus driver pass out plastic sealed containers that hold a turkey and cheese sandwich, fruit, yogurt and chocolate milk. “You’re welcome, baby,” Hull says with a wink as she lifts a meal from a giant silver cooler.

    JCPS has 127 summer feeding sites, many in schools or churches or community centers. But the Bus Stop Cafe targets sites that are often rural, areas of town where walking to a summer feeding site might be too difficult. The Okolona mobile-home park that Hull’s bus visits at 10:15 every weekday morning sits on a busy road with no sidewalks. Across an overgrown field, the only visible business is the mammoth UPS hub.

    The Bus Stop Cafe runs from May 30 to Aug. 4. Two buses and four refrigerated trucks make the same 19 stops Monday through Friday. Hull starts her day at 9:30. She sanitizes purple tables and stools that help give the former school bus the look and feel of a cafeteria. She quickly stocks the cooler with lunches. But those coolers — the size of deep freezers — could never hold the hundreds of lunches Hull serves at her five designated stops, so a refrigerated truck packed with extra meals follows behind. “There’s a great need,” Hull says quietly. (According to the most recent census data, nearly one in four children lives in poverty in Jefferson County.)

    Anyone under 18 can eat at the Bus Stop Cafe, no questions asked. On this morning, a young mother carries a chunky infant while clutching the hand of a pigtailed, wobbly-legged toddler. Hull passes the mother a special brown-bag lunch for the baby — applesauce, yogurt, no teeth necessary. In the 45 minutes Hull remains onsite, many older siblings escort clusters of younger children. 

    An official with JCPS’s Nutrition Services says the Bus Stop Cafe idea was “stolen” from a school system in the Denver area. Participation in the program has nearly doubled since adding the mobile food-delivery service four years ago. Last year JCPS served a total of about 170,000 lunches on the buses and at the 127 feeding locations.

    The government only reimburses for meals eaten onsite, to ensure that kids, not adults, eat the food, and every minute or so Hull asks, “You gonna eat here?” Most kids exit out the back of the bus. “Gonna go back with my parents,” a young boy in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles pajamas says. “Today is ‘grab-bag day’!” Hull says as she passes out temporary tattoos and erasers to kids who stay on the bus to eat, enticing them with the little prizes.  

    Hull laughs when thinking about her stops at the Fairdale and Sun Valley public pools. “The kids come in soaking wet and the air conditioner (on the bus) is on so they’re freezing,” she says. “So we put a tarp outside and they get to sit out in the sun.” There’s a young mom with five children whom Hull chats with every day, making sure to let out a big laugh when one of the kids reads a joke written on the back of his milk carton.

    Hull will serve about 75 children in the lot today. Then it’s on to another trailer park, an apartment complex and the public pools in the late afternoon. This south Louisville route is different than the one Hull did last year, but already the kids have grown to love “Miss Mary.” As a young brunette girl leaves the bus, Hull reminds her that if she eats on the bus all week, five days in a row, she’ll get a big prize — a jump rope. The young girl squeezes Hull’s shoulders and Hull hugs back. “See you tomorrow. Love you,” Hull says as the girl heads toward regal trees that guard a maze of mobile homes.

    This originally appeared in the July 2017 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazine, click here. To find your very own copy of Louisville Magazine, click here. 

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