Launched last year with a $50,000 grant from the ConAgra Foods Foundation awarded through the national Feeding America food bank network, the program was reinforced this year with a second $20,000 grant from ConAgra.
The funds have been used to purchase four retired school buses and pay drivers to make daily lunch deliveries to 11 congregate feeding sites and 29 neighborhoods in Washington, Sullivan, Carter, Unicoi and Greene counties where children do not have close access to other feeding programs.
Five days a week for 10 weeks, beginning June 1 and ending Aug. 2, the bus drivers pull into mobile home courts and housing projects and honk their horns for the children to come to the buses to eat.
“We’re the only food bank that’s doing this. And we’re one of the first to operate a program like this. So it’s a very unique program,” said Rhonda Chafin, executive director of the regional food bank.
“We modeled it after a mobile feeding program in Hawkins County that’s done by Of One Accord Ministry. They call it the Lunch Box, and they told us if there was any way we could replicate it, they wanted us to do that because it is so needed.”
So, Chafin said, the food bank wrote the grant proposal. “ConAgra loved it. They were so excited about it, they gave us $50,000 from their Feeding Children Better program last year that paid for three of the buses. And this year they gave us $20,000 that paid for another bus, salaries for four drivers and fuel for all the buses.”
Additional support for the program has come from the Mazon hunger-fighting organization, Share Our Strength and Blue Cross/Blue Shield to provide funding for the four AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers who ride along with the drivers and make contact with the children’s families and provide for educational nutrition information the volunteers distribute.
Second Harvest purchases the food for the sack lunches the buses deliver and is reimbursed for the cost through the same U.S. Department of Agriculture program that funds the free and reduced-price lunch program in public schools.
For each of four days of the week, the children receive a different sandwich and a once a week a prepackaged lunch of meat and cheese and crackers, and every day there are fresh carrots or celery sticks, fruit cups or fresh grapes and milk.
About a dozen volunteers gather weekly to pack the lunches at Crossroads Christian Church near the food bank in Gray. The lunches are then taken to other churches central to the communities the program serves that store the lunches and allow the buses to park on their lots overnight.
“We’re serving 475 to 500 children a day,” Chafin said. “We focus on a lot of trailer courts and rural areas where kids can’t walk into a town where there are places they can eat.”
Numbers vary according to the time of month and the weather. Last Wednesday at Carmel Village, just a few hours before heavy rains put the flood-prone mobile home park under water, there were two children there to meet the Lunch Express bus. On a busy day, up to 17 children from Carmel Village come to the bus for lunch. With the bus to themselves, 6-year old Jocelyn Rogers and 10-year-old Carlissa Gosney named off more than 10 regulars who were missing out on the day’s pita bread and turkey sandwich, celery sticks, Mandarin oranges and chocolate milk.
AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer Heidi Davis went knocking on doors and returned with reports of sickness at the home of one group of siblings and another family of children away at their grandmother’s for the Fourth of July holiday. And then there was the ongoing rain that Davis said can drop the children’s numbers by up to 30 percent.
Then again, driver Janet Marrow said, there were 41 children from Western Meadows in Unicoi County at the bus earlier in the day.
“It’s a start-up program and we want to do more stops,” Chafin said. “Families can call us if they need a stop where they live.”
Kathy Smith, community relations director for the food bank, said summer months are most challenging for children who rely on school meals.
“Hunger doesn’t take a vacation,” Smith said, which is why the food bank is addressing the “summer-specific” needs of the two out of five children in Northeast Tennessee who are considered food insecure.
The Lunch Express sites are free for any child in need and can be located by calling the food bank at 477-4053 or the National Hunger Hot Line at 866-3-HUNGRY.