The signature yellow and black school bus often leads to a seat in a classroom. But for many children in northeast Tennessee, it may lead to their next meal.
The Lunch Express, created last year by the Second Harvest Food Bank of Northeast Tennessee, travels an upward of 50 miles a day, seven days a week, to deliver sack lunches to food insecure children throughout Greene County, Tenn.
The food bank cooked up the idea after realizing the challenge of feeding children during summer vacation, when no school and limited transportation means students lose access to the free and reduced-price lunch program.
As anti-hunger group Feeding America recently reported, 49 million Americans have suffered from food insecurity since 2008, which includes 16 million children. In this part of the state, about two out of five students are uncertain of where their next meal is coming from, CBS reports.
Which is why this Tennessee food bank decided to take their efforts on the road. Last summer the organization purchased four used school buses for $4,000 each to serve as bread trucks to reach low-income kids in some of state’s most poverty-stricken areas. Since 2007, the food bank has seen a rise in demand for food assistance by 56 percent, according to CBS.
That number underscores a larger hunger crisis across the country. American food insecurity is at a record high, MSNBC reports. The growing hunger is heightened by a $5 billion automatic federal cut in food stamps in 2013 and the 2014 farm bill, which reduced $8.7 billion in food stamp benefits over the next decade.
As we head into the summer, the food bank braces for another season of hungry kids in hard-to-reach places.
The four buses wind will again wind through surrounding areas of Greenville, Tenn., spending about 15 minutes in each stop, which tend to be trailer parks. Kids pile into the bus, where they must finish their meal before they exit.
Each lunch contains about 750 calories worth of federal government-sanctioned, healthy food. The meals can range from celery, canned oranges and a bologna sandwich to cheese, cracker and meat snack packs. The lunch, which costs about $3.47 in total, is funded by taxpayers. For some children, as the Washington Post reports, this is the only reliable meal of the day.
But the biggest challenge volunteers face is complying with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) rules, according to the Post. Those restrictions prohibit giving out second servings, extra snacks and lunch to anyone over the age of 18 unless they’re disabled.
“You learn that there are rules,” food bank employee Morgan Anderson told the Post last July. “And then there’s the reality of the people you see on the bus.”
For images of children who benefit from The Lunch Express as well as powerful images of other Americans reliant on food assistance, check out the Post’s moving series, “Hunger in America.“