Second Harvest Organization Brings Food To Needy Children
BY SARAH GREGORY
A widely-read and somewhat controversial article, published last weekend by The Washington Post, has brought national attention to an until recently little-known meal delivery program that serves Greene County children during the summer months.
Second Harvest Food Bank of Northeast Tennessee's Lunch Express buses are part of the Summer Feeding Program as a means to provide proper nutrition to children considered food-insecure -- meaning they may not know where they will get their next meal, according to a news release from the food bank.
Four buses run in five northeast Tennessee counties -- Greene, Washington, Carter, Unicoi, and Sullivan -- every day, Monday through Friday, to provide lunchtime meals. There are also a number of stationary sites that provide the meals free-of-charge.
All children up to age 18 can benefit from the program without needing to register or provide other burdensome paperwork; they simply board the bus or visit a stationary site and eat.
ABOUT LUNCH EXPRESS
The Lunch Express program is in its second year, and requires the cooperation of a number of organizations in order to function, according to Rhonda Chafin, executive director of Second Harvest Food Bank of Northeast Tennessee.
Second Harvest, headquartered in Gray, serves an eight-county region of Carter, Greene, Hancock, Hawkins, Johnson, Sullivan, Unicoi and Washington counties.
A $20,000 grant from the ConAgra Foods Foundation made expansion of the program possible, according to a Second Harvest news release.
The ConAgra funding allowed Second Harvest to purchase the buses used in the Lunch Express program, Chafin said.
Food provided in the kids' lunches comes from Second Harvest. The organization's food bank is then reimbursed for the food cost by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Chafin said.
This summer, food costs alone are expected to be almost $60,000 for the Lunch Express bus routes and stationary Summer Feeding Program sites.
In order to qualify for the USDA reimbursements, Chafin said, there are specific guidelines that must be followed.
Requirements are placed on overall nutrition and the presence of a nutritionist, that the meals be consumed on or in a congregate setting beside the bus, and the time of day meals are served.
The time restriction plays a major part in determining where the bus travels, as they try to have as many stops and serve as many children as possible within the 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. time frame the route runs, Chafin said.
The routes were developed with the assistance of the Greene County and Greeneville City School Systems, Chafin said, because educators see first-hand the needs of children on a regular basis.
The Tennessee Department of Human Services (DHS) also plays a role in the administration of the program, Chafin said.
Other sponsors, in addition to ConAgra Foods, are Share Our Strength, a national foundation, Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Tennessee, Mazon Jewish Response to Hunger, AmeriCorps, and Food City.
WHERE ARE THE STOPS?
In Greene County, the Lunch Express bus operates this summer between late May and Aug. 1, making seven stops, Monday through Friday, in mobile home parks and apartment complexes.
Stops along the local Lunch Express bus route are: Cedar Grove Mobile Home Park, Revonda Circle, Freshour Mobile Home Park, Lambs Park, Ravenwood II, Indian Hills Apartments, and Lakeshore Park.
There are three Summer Feeding Program stationary sites operating through Aug. 8.
Meals from the stationary sites, also open Monday through Friday, are available at DeBusk Elementary School, from noon to 1 p.m., and Doak and Mosheim Elementary Schools from 11:30 a.m. to noon.
LITTLE KNOWN, UNTIL NOW
Prior to The Washington Post's article authored by staff writer Eli Saslow, the Lunch Express bus program was not well known.
Chafin said the Post found out about the innovative program -- apparently the first of its type in the nation -- from the national Feeding America office.
Second Harvest Food Bank of Northeast Tennessee is a member of Feeding America -- a nationwide network of more than 200 food banks that supports food-security programs and public education about hunger, and advocates for legislation that protects individuals from going hungry, according to information provided by Second Harvest.
Greene Countians may also recognize Feeding America as the beneficiary of funds raised during The Band Perry's downtown concert in April.
The Greeneville Sun, along with many people in the community, became aware of the program following Saslow's article in the Post.
His article did not specifically mention Second Harvest Food Bank of Northeast Tennessee.
Research by the Sun indicated the Lunch Express program was operated by Second Harvest, which was confirmed by Kathy Smith, the organization's Community Relations Director.
Further discussions with Smith revealed that The Greeneville Sun had not received initial news releases about the program due to her typographical error in the email address.
The errors have been corrected, and the Sun has since received full information about the Summer Feeding Program and Lunch Express initiatives.
ALONG THE BUS ROUTE
After being contacted by a Sun reporter, Second Harvest invited the newspaper to accompany the Lunch Express bus, and on Thursday, a Sun writer traveled with Chafin, bus driver Rick Bible, and AmeriCorps nutritionist Morgan Anderson on the Greene County route.
After four-and-a-half hours and nearly 50 miles, what the Sun witnessed and learned about the program, and those it serves, revealed a number of inaccuracies in the Post's account of the Greene County route.
Those inaccuracies were confirmed by Chafin, who said, "there were things that have been shared with me from AmeriCorps and our driver that were not as accurate as they would've liked them to have been."
Examples of inaccuracies about the Greene County Lunch Express bus included anecdotes referring to a highway that "turned to red dirt and gravel." The Sun observed that all roads along the bus route were paved, with only private driveways and accesses being unpaved.
Greene County Road Superintendent David Weems confirmed that of approximately 1,200 miles of roads in Greene County, there "might" be 10 miles of unpaved roadway.
Another anecdote referenced a sign that said "hunger is hidden" placed on the bus dashboard is not present in the bus Bible operates in Greene County.
Multiple references to bologna sandwiches in the Post article, such as a quote from a 12-year-old boy asking about having "bologna again" also were not representative of the Lunch Express' Greene County route.
"It's not a bologna sandwich every day," Chafin laughed, adding, "it wasn't even bologna on that day."
Anderson, who organizes the meals in her role as nutritionist, told the Sun that meals rotate in two-week cycles.
During one week, three days of various types of sandwiches will be interspersed with two days of "Lunchables"-type meals, such as meats, cheeses, and crackers, nachos, or pizza.
On the second week, three days of "Lunchables" are interspersed with two days of different sandwiches, eliminating the possibility that the children are fed the same meal numerous days in a row.
The sandwiches are prepared by a group of volunteers every Wednesday.
'SLAPPING' QUOTE DISPUTED
Another incident reported by the Post about a mother "slapping his bottom hard enough for the bus to go silent, then pulling her arm back to slap him again" who later, "yanked him back into his seat" leaving Anderson to wonder "if this would be one of the times when she needed to call child protective services to make a report" was also inaccurate, the Sun was told.
Bible and Anderson told the Sun that the mother's reaction to a child throwing food was a single spanking. "It was an attention-getter," Bible said, noting that child protective services have only been contacted once during the program, and not in relation to this incident.
The Post article also made reference to three men "sweaty and unshaven after a morning working in the strawberry fields" observed by Anderson. Anderson confirmed to the Sun that she had not witnessed such an occurrence.
Discussions with Chafin indicated that Saslow had traveled on two Lunch Express buses -- one in Greene County and one in Unicoi County -- in preparation for the Post's article.
In discussing these inaccuracies in the article by Saslow, which seemed to indicate it was written solely from experience on the Greene County route, Chafin said, the accounts "may have been on another drive. It could've been that he got them jumbled together."
At the time of publication, the Sun has been unable to contact Saslow for comment.
BENEFITS FROM PUBLICITY
Nevertheless, Chafin says Second Harvest has benefitted from the Post's article, in spite of some inaccuracies and the fact that it did not mention Second Harvest by name.
Since the article was published last weekend, she estimates $2,500 in donations have come in to support the Lunch Express buses and Summer Feeding Program.
A number of other media outlets have picked up the story as well, highlighting need in Northeast Tennessee and showing potential donors how they can help, Chafin said.
On the same day that the Sun was traveling with the Lunch Express bus, an area television reporter traveled a portion of the route. Chafin was also on the air with National Public Radio discussing the program that afternoon.
She noted that Fox News Channel is planning to do a segment as well.
"I think the great thing about it is that -- quite honestly -- it's opened some eyes for people that could really, honestly, impact federal nutrition programs, because they're on the chopping block right now," Chafin said.
"We had someone call yesterday [Wednesday], and she worked for the federal government. She was concerned. I think she really has a position that she can use to help," she added.
U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, D-2nd, Mass., was "on the floor today [Thursday] talking about this to his fellow House members and how important it is to not cut federal nutrition programs and what it means to this area, and asking them to read the article," Chafin said.
"It really has shed some light on this situation that people kind of get isolated from."
'A LITTLE DISAPPOINTED'
Second Harvest was disappointed with the article in some ways, though, Chafin said when asked by the Sun.
"We were a little disappointed that our name wasn't in the article, so that people could call and maybe help us out, because we really could use help to expand," she said.
"There were some things in the article that were disappointing," she added, noting that she had personally spent a considerable period of time with the Post reporter to explain the work the organization does and the role that a number of other community agencies play in addressing need.
"We would've liked to have seen the article be about why we started it. We know there's need, and that's the thing, I think -- that it's not just in Northeast Tennessee," Chafin said.
"It really is affecting rural America like this. It's not just Northeast Tennessee. I think that would've been impactful for everybody that read it all over the United States, so they could say, 'this is in my own community. I want to help out,'" Chafin said.
"He [Saslow] had the opportunity to say there's extreme poverty everywhere, not just Northeast Tennessee, and I wish he would've said that," she told the Sun.
MANY WORKING TOGETHER
Extreme poverty in Greeneville and Greene County, Chafin said, is being attacked by a number of different agencies who deserve support.
Second Harvest provided the Sun with a list of 20 agencies to which it provides food supply for Greene County residents in need.
Those 20 agencies are: the Boys & Girls Club of Greeneville & Greene County, Freewill Baptist Ministries, Full Gospel Mission, Family Support Center, and Greeneville Community Ministries;
Also, Greeneville Seventh-day Ministries, Greystone Food Pantry, Holston United Methodist Home for Children, Lick Creek Valley Free Will Baptist Church, McDonald Mission Center, Mosheim Community Outreach, Mountain Vision Ministries;
Also, Northern Greene County Ministries, Open Door Tabernacle Church, The Opportunity House, Pentecostal Family Worship Center, Tabernacle Mission Soup Kitchen, Thrive Ministry, U-Turn For Christ, and U-Turn Women's Ranch.
Most of the agencies operate as pantries or soup kitchens. Others operate as group homes or shelters.
Chafin credits these agencies for making a difference in Greeneville and Greene County.
"We could not -- absolutely could not -- feed the hungry without them. They are great community partners. They make it happen," she said.
"But there are still a lot of unserved areas that need to be tackled," she added.
She said she hopes the Lunch Express bus program will receive enough support to expand its operations in the coming years.
"We know it needs to be in Camp Creek. We know it needs to be in Baileyton. We know it needs to be in those areas, but this one bus can't possibly go with the time schedule and meet guidelines," she said.
"There are so many people that could -- I think, here in this community, in our region, the state, and the country -- help us in our work so that we wouldn't struggle to know, 'are we going to do it next year?'" she said.
"There's so much I really want people to know that's happening, but we still need to do more."