For the past two decades, I have spent quite a bit of time driving the back roads of the Southern Highlands, which is one of the many names that locals use to describe the Appalachian Mountains of East Tennessee and Western North Carolina.
One of my very favorite East Tennessee roads runs from the back of Johnson City — where my family lived during our Milligan College years — down the Nolichucky River into the back side of Greeneville. The mountains there are high, lonesome and as beautiful as any in the region. They are almost completely free of development, especially when it comes to tourists.
But as any local knows, there are mountain people up in there and their lives are very hard. The word “Appalachian” has many meanings and extreme poverty is part of the picture.
The Washington Post ran a fine, but haunted, news feature the other day about a rolling food-bank project to fight hunger among the shattered families along those mountain roads above the Nolichucky. Please read it all, because it’s well worth the time.
If you look carefully at the photo that ran with the piece, you learn that this particular anti-hunger project has a name, a name that is not mentioned in the article for some reason. However, readers do find out quite a bit about the bus driver and the people he feeds.
The driver’s name was Rick Bible, and his 66-mile route through the hills of Greene County marked the government’s latest attempt to solve a rise in childhood hunger that had been worsening for seven consecutive years.
Congress had tried to address it mostly by spending a record $15 billion each year to feed 21 million low-income children in their schools, but that left out the summer, so the U.S. Department of Agriculture agreed to spend $400 million more on that. Governors came together to form a task force. Michelle Obama suggested items for a menu. Food banks opened thousands of summer cafes, and still only about 15 percent of eligible children received regular summer meals.
So, earlier this year, a food bank in Tennessee came up with a plan to reverse the model. Instead of relying on children to find their own transportation to summer meal sites, it would bring food to children. The food bank bought four used school buses for $4,000 each and designed routes that snake through some of the most destitute land in the country, where poverty rates have almost doubled since 2009 and two-thirds of children qualify for free meals.
However, as a former resident of the region, my religion-ghost alarm went off immediately when I saw — in that photo, not in the story text — that the name of the food bank was Second Harvest. As it turns out, this charity is linked to Greeneville Community Ministries.
The obvious question: Is this a purely government project or, as one would expect deep in the Bible Belt hills, is this worthwhile and remarkable effort just as much a ministry among the volunteers and donors as it is a tax-funded project? It could, of course, be both. If so, that’s a very interesting angle to include in the story.
As it is, the story is poignant, moving and essential reading — yet strangely faith-free if you know anything about that part of Tennessee. Why write the story without including the religion angle?
Actually, there is a tiny reference to religion, one linked to that guy named Bible. It’s part of this amazing slice of the story. It’s long, but essential:
The kids awoke at 9, two on the bed they had found at Goodwill and two more on the box spring. They watched “Fast & Furious.” They ate the leftover sandwich.
At 11 a.m., Courtney stood by the window, rocking the baby and watching for the bus. Three other children from the trailer park were already waiting outside, picking rocks off the road and throwing them at a nearby tree. They heard the bus before they saw it, big tires crunching gravel. “Food’s here!” Courtney yelled, alerting her sisters. Before they were ready to leave the trailer, Bible, the driver, walked over to find them. By now he knew the regulars on his route, and he always made sure they were fed.
Bible had lived in Greene County his entire life, but the trailer parks on his route reminded him of Belize, where he had traveled on a mission trip a decade earlier. He had spent a week there building a basic shelter for a homeless man while 70 other homeless people watched, wondering if Bible might build them houses, too. What he had experienced then was the same combination of fatigue and helplessness he felt now, looking inside the Laughrens’ dilapidated trailer. In this part of the country, in this time, no amount of sack lunches would ever be enough.
He knocked on the door. Courtney and her siblings opened it.
“We have turkey, crackers and pears today,” he said. “You hungry?”
“Always,” she said, and they followed him back to the bus.
Anyone want to bet that this Bible guy is still on a faith-driven mission to help the poor?
One final comment: The sad reality in this part of the world is that much of the poverty is the rural version of the poverty seen in urban ghettos. A key theme is the absence of fathers in these homes. Trust me when I say that in and round Greeneville and in these mountains this issue has a religious component.
This Laughren family includes five children, with the youngest nine months old. The mother works 12-hour days trying to keep food on the table.
Where is the father? What is his role in this tragic scene?
Who knows? Apparently, the Post team was not interested in these kinds of moral questions, either.
PHOTO: The mountains above Greeneville, Tenn.