ROGERSVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) — A long-running Rogersville-based summer meal program serving Hawkins County kids is putting lunch service on pause this year.

Staff with Of One Accord Ministry’s “Lunchbox Program” said their decision was a reaction to a combination of declining demand and regulation from their main funder, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Of One Accord Director Sheldon Livesay told News Channel 11 that food, labor and other resources cost the program $15 per meal.

“You can’t justify that,” Livesay said.

Prior to the pandemic, the program distributed about 12,000 meals but in 2022, they only gave out 2,408. Livesay said free meals at summer school programs may have contributed to the decline.

Getting kids to show up is only half the battle for the program; however, as the pandemic came to a close the USDA began requiring organizations that receive reimbursement for meal distribution programs, like Of One Accord and Second Harvest Foodbank, to return to in-person, supervised meals.

“It requires organizations to actually sit with that child for a certain amount of time, watch them eat their meal,” said Rhonda Chafin, executive director of Second Harvest Foodbank of Northeast Tennessee. “Then when that time is up, that child has to throw away what they haven’t consumed.”

Cathy Doerr, who helps Of One Accord Ministries apply for grants, told News Channel 11, the move away from grab-and-go meals may be contributing to the decline in demand.

When the Lunch Box Program was granted a waiver to continue with grab-and-go meals last summer, their attendance increased by 40%, Doerr said.

Chafin said putting the program on pause this summer could have major consequences, not only for Hawkins County kids but for Second Harvest as well.

“We know that in Hawkins County and Rogersville as it’s the only source of food for many children that need a meal during the summer,” Chafin said.

Second Harvest will take over summer food distribution while the Lunch Box Program is on hold.

“It means more time and resources to go all the way to Hawkins County when we have a partner right there that just needs that help,” Chafin said.

Of One Accord Ministries is awaiting guidance from state and local governments about whether they’ll be permitted to continue with grab-and-go meals.

In the meantime, they plan to re-design their bus interiors in the hopes of making eating on the bus more appealing to kids.

“We’re in this for the long haul,” Livesay said. “We’re refitting the buses with a kind of a different style in mind, and, if we do a good job, I think kids are going to want to get on.”