Lunch Express serves rural kids in Tennessee

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.” The Lunch Express provides the largest meal of the day for many low-income kids.

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.”


Published on CivilEats by Chris Hardman

Detroit Company Creates Fresh Food Pit Stops

IF YOU’RE ON THE HUNT for a fresh, ready-to-eat meal in Detroit, the best place to find it just might surprise you. Take the Sunoco station on Fort Street or the Victory Liquor and Food store on Warren Avenue. Amidst the Hot Cheetos and snack-sized Chips Ahoy cookies, you’ll find a cooler stocked with everything from fresh fruit and yogurt parfaits and spicy feta and hummus wraps to Thai chicken salads made with fresh, green lettuce—not the wilted iceberg you might expect.

The company behind the food might not be what you’d expect either. Fresh Corner Cafe (FCC) is a mission driven food and delivery service with the goal of making healthy food accessible to all Detroiters. To do this, they’ve turned to a most unlikely distribution center—neighborhood convenience stores.

For years, Detroit has been labeled a “food desert,” but that term is misleading. “It’s not that we don’t have grocery stores,” explains Detroit native and FCC co-founder Val Waller. “It’s that people have issues getting to them.”

According to a 2011 report from Data Driven Detroit, there are more than 115 grocery stores within Detroit’s city limits. In the years since that report was published, several high-profile grocery stores have opened stores in the city—including Whole Foods in June 2013 and Meijer in July 2013. But Detroit encompasses 138 square miles, the public transportation is undependable and some neighborhoods are simply not safe for walking. As a result, many Detroiters choose food from the closest of the more than 1,000 corner stores in the city.

“We’re trying to change the idea of what can be available in these spaces,” Waller explains. Initially FCC co-owner Noam Kimelman had to convince the shop owners that his products would sell. But Kimelman and Waller worked hard to build relationships with store owners and won over customers by providing free samples.

The idea for Fresh Corner Cafe came to Kimelman while he was studying at the University of Michigan. While working on his Masters of Health Management and Public Policy, he and his classmates came up with an idea for getting healthier food into urban areas. His first business, Get Fresh Detroit, launched in 2010 and offered for sale packets of food with fresh ingredients to make soup or stir fry. His goal was to make a gas station or convenience store a one-stop shop for fresh food ingredients. Kimelman soon learned that his customers were more interested in ready-to -eat meals, so he changed his business plan to offer pre-made meals.IMG_7849_edited-1

Kimelman recruited Waller, another U of M graduate, to join the company in 2011. Her degree in sociology and work experience in her family’s Detroit pizzeria have fueled her passion for creating an equitable local foodshed. She says access to good food should not be contingent on where someone lives.

Unlike most government interventions, says the Fresh Corner Café website, which “rely on big box retail to address healthy food access and obesity” the company’s goal is to “reduce barriers and uplift existing assets to provide a highly replicable and scalable solution with low capital requirements.”

Targeting convenience stores is an effective way to reach low-income shoppers. Fresh Corner Cafe sells to stores that are all certified to accept food assistance cards, also called Bridge cards. According to Data Driven Detroit, residents of Detroit spend twice as much of their Bridge card money at convenience stores as compared to the rest of Michigan‘s residents.

Fresh Corner Cafe works at a community level. They source fruit from Peaches and Greens, a locally owned produce market, and the wraps and salads come from Lunchtime Detroit, a sandwich shop. The staff lives locally and the drivers come from the communities to which they deliver. FCC delivers meals to 27 locations—including cafes, gas stations, and pharmacies—three times a week.

Currently the sales from the convenience stores do not generate enough revenue to turn a profit, so in order to keep the company sustainable, FCC expanded by placing their own self-serve to-go cafes in several Detroit workplaces. The company provides a fully-stocked refrigerator with a self-pay station and they stock and clean the shelves and handle all financial transactions. These workplace cafes makes it convenient for busy professionals to eat healthy and for businesses to provide fresh food to their employees.

So far, these strategies appear to be working. In August, Kimelman was recognized with a young entrepreneur SCORE award for pioneering the model and the company now employs six people.

Last year FCC sold some 30,000 meals bringing in $200,000 worth of revenue. Those numbers will continue to grow as FCC expands to more stores and offices. According to Waller, FCC plans to open their own certified kitchen, which will give them more control over ingredients and eventually allow them to introduce an organic line. “It is a social injustice for people to not have access to fresh food,” she says. “Detroiters are so used to not having things that they don’t even know how to ask for them.”


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