SOUTH PITTSBURG, Tenn. -- In Marion County, about 75 percent of the school system's students receive free or reduced-price lunches, but officials weren't sure what those students were doing for food during the summer months.
"I wasn't aware so much of the need after school was out until I started thinking about what these kids were doing [for meals] during the summer," South Pittsburg Housing Authority Executive Director Terry Case said. "If they're getting free and reduced lunch during school, what are they eating during the summertime?"
Four years ago, officials answered Case's question by using a federal grant to start the Summer Feeding Program.
Case said he wasn't sure initially how the program would be accepted in the community.
"After the first year and in our small community, we'd served over 12,000 meals," he said. "As we get more accepted, it's just a work in progress to keep children fed during the summer months. We've progressively gotten stronger. It's grown, but it's been manageable growth."
Since that first summer, the program has expanded to Jasper and Whitwell, where it serves gatherings like day camps, summer camps and athletic training functions.
This summer officials expect to serve more than 20,000 meals throughout Marion County.
"Wherever there's a group of young people, we take them food," Case said.
David Hale, who grew up in South Pittsburg and is a teacher at the high school, brings kids from a local day camp for breakfast and lunch.
"It's a really good program," he said. "More and more people are in need these days, and for some, these are the only meals they're getting."
South Pittsburg Housing Authority Deputy Director Jan Brooks, who is the program's administrator, said it is serving an average of 275 children per day and "that's a low estimate."
"Part of some people's stigma is that it's only geared for low-income families," she said. "It's for anyone, and that's been the hardest thing to stress. This is for any child."
The program runs for eight weeks during the summer, officials said.
"We're not just doing this in South Pittsburg," Hale said. "This is for all Marion County kids, and we do service a lot of kids in the county."
Case said the program is intended to provide meals to kids up to age 19, but workers never refuse anyone.
"We're not allowed to ask their age, where they're from, or anything like that anyway, so it doesn't matter to us," he said. "If they show up at the door, we're going to give them a meal."