For 17 years, the Christian nonprofit has provided free, daily sack lunches for children who normally rely on school lunches that end once school is out in the summer. The program has expanded to six counties and is in desperate need of more lunches, organizers say.
“Blowing the horn is so significant to these children,” Rigsby said as she honked her van horn. “They know that I’m here and they know that their lunch is here. But it also tells everybody around me that something is going on — please be aware that there are kids out.”
Before the van had arrived Thursday morning at the first of three stops at a mobile home community on Gray Road, between Church and Smyrna Powder Spring roads in Smyrna, 60 children and parents had already lined up along the hill where dilapidated homes sit. Not being on time means no lunch.
As she began unloading 10 boxes filled with 250 lunches from the back of the van, the crowd of mostly children quickly but civilly surged toward her.
“I had to turn a couple away because they were asking for lunches for their moms,” Rigsby said minutes later, as she looked for latecomers who came in the form of a few tiny stragglers still in their pajamas.
Program volunteers are prohibited from giving anyone except children a lunch, and they only get one, but that doesn’t stop somebody every now and then from jumping in line for a second time.
As the economy has slowed over the years, the demand for lunches has increased to a point where MUST has to turn down requests.
Rigsby, who is head of the lunch program, said an average of 2,500 lunches are delivered daily in Cobb, Cherokee, Douglas, Paulding, Gwinnett and north Fulton counties. Though it has received corporate support, the program is currently in need of 700 more lunches to satisfy demand, she said.
“What we are seeing now is a lot of people are calling us, not to donate items, but to request our services,” said Rigsby, who fills in for absent drivers.
“The summer creates a hardship on parents that parents don’t like to talk about,” she said. “The hardship is that it’s hard to feed their own children in the summer because they’re used to children getting lunches during the school year.”
Most children eligible for federal free or reduced price meals during the school year qualify for the MUST Summer Lunch Program. Since its founding in 1995 by teacher Carol Hunt, the program has grown from delivering 25 lunches a day in Cobb to more than 140,000 in the six counties. It’s funded almost entirely through donations.
Two volunteers per vehicle deliver the lunches on assigned days along a mapped-out route with a few stops within five miles of each other. Lunches are delivered five days a week from a total of 13 host sites and are composed of a sandwich, juice, chips and desert. Each costs between $1.50 and $2.
“This was the first year that I had the opportunity to be a driver,” said two-year volunteer Kassie Bohanon, 39. “You go in the neighborhood, start honking your horn and they come running. It’s pretty neat.”
A report released Friday by the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Food Research and Action Center, titled “Hunger Doesn’t Take a Vacation,” found that a drop-off of programs for children due to budget cuts has meant fewer sites serving summer meals in many states.
FRAC found that total participation nationwide in the federally funded Summer Nutrition Programs has dropped by 112,000 children since July 2008.
About 80 people were gathered at Rigsby’s second stop in an apartment complex off South Cobb Drive. Again, they eagerly waited in a single line for their turn to receive a lunch sack. A group of older boys patiently allowed smaller children to get theirs first.
At the third and final stop at a nearby neighborhood of single-family homes, 15 children responded to Rigsby’s loud horn that is something of a necessary annoyance. Claudia Alvarado, a 33-year-old mother of six of them, said the lunches are a godsend.
Rigsby, a former apartment manager who began her MUST career 11 years ago as a volunteer, said the need for help is obvious at times. She said she believes God placed her in the position she is in now.
“You would see the kids with the same clothes on or the little ones would come out in the morning with diapers that were just hanging there soaking,” she said before heading back to First Baptist Church Smyrna, the area host site for volunteers.
Maria Hernandez, a petite young mother of a 1-year-old daughter on one of the stops, said she thinks the lunches serve a big need in the community.
“This is just a great gift to the community,” said Hernandez, 20. “Even though it’s not a lot, the kids come out and get excited.”
MUST Ministries is seeking financial support as well as more food and volunteers for its summer lunch program. To learn more about how to contribute, visit www.mustministries.org.