Tatiana Watkins peels an orange as she prepares to devour a lunch of fruit, pizza and milk — her favorite summertime meal.

Were it not for the summer food service program operated through Shelby County Schools, the 9-year-old student would typically be eating “chips and soda” because that’s what’s available at her Memphis home, she said Tuesday.

Tatiana is one of thousands of Shelby County students who rely on the program for healthful meals during the summer months. Even though the school year has ended, she and her three siblings walk daily to Cummings Elementary School for the free breakfast and lunch.

Funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the program offers meals and afternoon snacks through hundreds of participating organizations, churches, community centers and parks.

Last summer, workers and volunteers distributed meals at 550 sites. The program continues to add distribution partners every year, said Calvin Johnson, the district’s director of nutrition operations.

“We have to keep adding sites to go to where the kids are. Kids don’t all congregate at the park like they used to. We’ve had to spread out to find them,” said Johnson, who began working with the district’s nutrition department 32 years ago.

As of this week, distribution was set up at 546 local sites. But by the end of the summer, the reach could extend to 650 sites, the largest number yet, Johnson said.

Free meals are available to the district’s 78,750 students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch during the school year. In all, that encompasses about 65 percent of the student population in Tennessee’s largest public school system.

However, a student no longer has to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch to qualify for free meals. Last year, Shelby County Schools, Millington Schools, and Metro Nashville Public Schools began participating in a federal program that provides all students with food assistance, regardless of socioeconomic status.

Organizers expect to hand out 650,000 lunches this summer, an increase of 50,000 over last year, as well as 500,000 breakfasts and 300,000 afternoon snacks.

Markayla Mosby, 10, and Tatiana Watkins, 9, eat lunch this week at Cummings Elementary School.
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Markayla Mosby, 10, and Tatiana Watkins, 9, eat their lunch at Cummings Elementary School.

The need for more distribution sites is a big focus, Johnson said. In March, the Tennessee Department of Human Services issued a news release seeking more partners in its quest “to ensure that no Tennessee child goes hungry this summer.”

Statewide, about 650,000 students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch during the school year. However, only 48,000 Tennessee students participated in the food program last summer, said DHS spokesman Devin Stone.

In Shelby County, about 82,000 children live in poverty and are eligible to participate.

The summer program began in Shelby County in 1968 and, within three years, had established a solid distribution network serving 1.28 million lunches at about 200 sites.

A lot has changed, however.

Mai Hall, who worked the distribution lines for more than three decades, recalls that hundreds of kids would congregate for meals at parks and housing complexes during the early years. Today, children living in poverty are spread in neighborhoods across Memphis, reinforcing the need for more sites.

The food wasn’t always nutritious at the outset, Hall remembers. That’s changed, too. Today, balanced meals are the standard. One day every week is salad day, and fresh fruit and milk are always included.

What hasn’t changed is the need.

“Food is still expensive, and there is still usually only one parent in the house trying to make do for the kids,” Hall said. “Without this program, most of the city’s kids would go hungry, and the rest would be eating things terrible for them.”

Cheryl Williams hands out Tuesday's lunch to hungry line of students Tuesday at Cummings Elementary School.
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Cheryl Williams hands out lunch to a line of hungry students at Cummings.

Cheryl Williams, who handed out oranges and pizza Lunchables this week at Cummings Elementary School, sees this need firsthand every morning.

“Whenever I get here at 7:45 to set up for breakfast at 8, there are already hungry kids lining up at the door,” Williams said. “Hunger in Memphis has been a problem and will be a problem, but it’s the responsibility of the community to help feed our children.”

A list of district-sponsored locations can be found on the Shelby County Schools website, and a list of participating parks can be found on the website for the city of Memphis.

Editor’s note: Clarifies in new 9th paragraph that all students in Shelby County can receive food assistance under a new federal program.