In an apartment complex in Greene County, Tennessee, children wait excitedly for the arrival of the Lunch Express bus. The apartment manager sets up picnic tables in the shade, while Christy Lunday brings out a small table for the little kids. Lunday, a mother of four, has used the Lunch Express for three years. She has a job and makes just enough money to exempt her from government food assistance programs, but she still needs help feeding her family. “There is not a lot of money left for food after bills,” she said. “[The Lunch Express bus] really helped me out a lot.”
She explains that for some of the children in the neighborhood, the Lunch Express provides them with the biggest meal of the day. “It does have an impact on some families more than others,” she said. “The need is definitely there. I think it’s awesome.”
With summer break just around the corner, many low-income parents are worried about feeding their children through the summer months. During the school year, free and reduced school breakfasts and lunches help these families tremendously, but once the summer comes, already strapped-for-cash families can see their food bills double. The strain is extra on families in rural areas who do not live close to Boys & Girls Clubs or schools that offer summer lunch programs.
The Second Harvest Food Bank of Northeast Tennessee, which serves some 3,000 square miles across eight counties in the northeastern part of the state, has come up with an innovative way to provide lunch for kids in the country during the summer. The Lunch Express, first developed in 2012, delivers lunch five days a week to children in remote areas of the region using four refurbished school buses. In rural Northeast Tennessee, one in four children lives at or below the poverty level, which translates to a lot of hungry kids. Compounding the problem, many of the families the local food bank serves live in sparsely populated areas or tucked away on winding mountain roads.
“Without our program a lot of them would be going without meals,” explained Heidi Davis, the summer feeding service coordinator for Second Harvest. “A lot of parents talk about skipping meals during the summer.”
Throughout the nation, school districts use money from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Summer Food Service Program to fund free breakfast and lunch programs for children in the summer. Other USDA sponsored summer lunch programs are hosted by Boys and Girls Clubs, libraries, churches, YMCAs and social service agencies. But the problem of reaching kids in rural areas, with no access to transportation, remains. The cost of transporting food over long distances to a widely dispersed rural population requires additional funds that many summer food service programs simply don’t have.
“Our program costs a bit more to operate than we actually get reimbursed [by the government for],” Davis said. “The mobile program is expensive, but we are committed to it because we know 80 percent of children that qualify for free and reduced lunch are at home during the summer and not in a summer program like at the YMCA where a traditional summer meals site would be.”
Each Lunch Express bus makes between eight to 10 stops a day and reaches in total about 100 kids. Combined with Second Harvest’s mobile food pantry and summer food service program, Davis estimates that the food bank feeds 1,000 kids a day. “We know we’re only hitting about 11-12 percent of kids in our area,” Davis said. She explains that the food bank is working to expand the Lunch Express’ route and on reaching kids in remote mountain areas.
Because the Lunch Express is primarily funded through the USDA, the program must meet a set of government guidelines. For example, lunch sites must be in a school system where more than 50 percent of students receive free and reduced lunch and participants must be 18 years old or younger and must eat the entire meal as a group at the site. Nutrition guidelines dictate that each meal must contain one cup of milk, ¾ cup of fruits and vegetables, one serving of grain, and one serving of meat or meat alternative.
The Second Harvest Food Bank of Northeast Tennessee also uses private funds, from donations and fundraisers, to send food boxes home for the kids’ weekend lunches.
“We’ve done a ton of advocacy to make the program work better for families in rural communities, and we’ve used private funds to operate demonstration pilots to see if we can feed kids in different ways and still operate within the reimbursement amount,” Davis said.
Christina Meanyhan, a mother of six, lives in the same apartment complex as Christy Lunday. She stocks up on food throughout the school year to help her get through the lean summer months. She relies on $741 a month in food assistance to feed herself and her three children. Once the summer comes, her food bill will nearly double—from $500 to $900 a month—when her three oldest children, who spend the school year at their dad’s house in Florida, return for the summer.
All six of her children are eligible for the Lunch Express. “I can’t even explain to you how much money that saves me,” she said.
She is currently unemployed because her car broke down, and she doesn’t have money to fix it. “I was doing fine,” she said, but no car means no job. In rural Tennessee, there is nowhere to walk to work and no public transportation.
The Lunch Express is an important part the Meanyhan family’s day. “[The bus] parks right outside my window,” she said. “From that first day on, they are looking out the window for that lunch bus.”