Now that the school year is over, a nutritious meal could be hard to come by for many area children.
With the help of East Tennessee Human Resource Agency's summer food program and Loudon High School cafeteria staff, area children under 18 will have free breakfasts and lunches available.
Starting June 4 and lasting through July 27, children may receive a meal that meets the federal nutrition guidelines Monday-Friday at the LHS cafeteria. The cafeteria will be closed July 4.
"I think a lot of times we don't realize there are hungry youth and adults right here in Loudon County. A lot of our students depend on the breakfast and lunch program (during the school year)," Allison Millsaps, food and health services supervisor at Loudon County Schools, said. "This is just a continuation of that and bridges the gap between May and August."
There are no income guidelines and no questions asked.
"Just show up and eat," Millsaps said. "They don't have to be students of Loudon County. They just have to be under 18.
"I think it is critical because I know we reach students and kids who wouldn't have adequate nutrition in the summer or adequate food," she said.
Millsaps said hours of operation have not yet been set, but LHS acts as an ETHRA vendor for area organizations to take meals to approved off-site locations, such as day camps, summer schools, sports/activity camps, day or evening Vacation Bible Schools, outreach programs and parks or playgrounds.
Blairland Baptist Church has been relying on the program the past three years for Vacation Bible School and, more recently, its Upward basketball camp.
"That's just an expense we don't have to pass on to the kids as far as raising the camp fee," Jeff Harris, youth pastor, said. He expects 50-60 children to attend the camp.
"Naturally, you know, there may be some things in there they don't like, but they are getting a lot of the stuff they do, so it's not junk food or anything like that. With basketball camp they're doing a lot of activity. They are spending a lot of energy and stuff like that so they need the right nutrition too," Harris said.
Veronica Stephens, ETHRA children's program manager, said the Boys & Girls Club in Lenoir City will also serve the meals daily.
"It keeps the parents from having to send lunches, so they are getting complete nutritious meals every day," Stephens said.
The meal typically includes eight ounces of milk, two ounces of meat, bread, a fruit and a vegetable. "Basically the same meal pattern they get from the school," Stephens said.
Philadelphia Elementary School will also serve as a feeding site.
Adult training was held last week at the LHS cafeteria, where about 30 people came to take advantage of the program, including Rick and Bobbie Jo Harrell of Second Baptist Church in Lenoir City.
This is the first year the local church will be using the meals for its Vacation Bible School.
"We have a lot of kids to feed in the area where we are. We just thought we would try it. We never know (what to expect)," Bobbie Joe Harrell, who heard about the program at work at Loudon Elementary School, said.
Other training sessions will be held on a one-on-one basis for those who could not attend.
Even though ETHRA has been offering this program since the late 1970s, according to Stephens, this is the fifth year the school system has housed such a program.
"Me and the cafeteria staff had an interest in starting a program because they see the need. Being cafeteria workers, they understand there are in fact hungry children in our community," Millsaps said.
Besides feeding children, the program offered cafeteria staff summer work hours and funding for cafeteria needs and equipment.
ETHRA reimburses the school through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service. The program is administered by the Department of Human Services.
"So that's how we are able to do that free of charge. We prepared the meals and submit the numbers and they in turn reimburse us for the meals we prepared," Millsaps said.
Not all of the East Tennessee ETHRA-covered counties have a program in place. ETHRA determines which areas qualify based on poverty data from the U.S. Census and free and reduced-price lunch numbers from the school systems.
"To qualify a site, you either have to be in an area where the school district has 50 percent of its kids get free or reduced meals or we can use Census data where 50 percent of the residents are low income," Stephens said. "Most areas we serve, the majority of the area is going to be qualifying anyway so that way it doesn't limit anybody."
Loudon County Schools has about 58 percent of its total student population on free and reduced-price lunches, showing the demand for the summer food program.
"To put that into perspective, I started here 11 years ago and at that time we had about 42 percent free and reduced, so I think it is a sign of the times and the economy. We have more and more families that qualify each year," she said. "Our numbers seem to grow every year as word spreads."
That isn't the case regionally.
"We are probably going to have a little bit of a decrease this year. You would think it would be the opposite with the economy. ... A whole lot of the state funding the schools didn't get, which didn't allow them to participate in any summer programs," Stephens said. " We try to target areas that children are already gathered that way transportation isn't an issue. It really keeps the cost down and allows to expand that much more."
There are 15 East Tennessee counties that are signed up for the program, according to Stephens. ETHRA averages providing close to 2,000 breakfasts and 4,000-4,500 lunches each day.
For more information, call Millsaps at 865-458-5411, ext. 1011, or email email@example.com
. Please put "Summer Feeding" in the subject line.