To a suburban kid, the jazzy music that announced an approaching truck might suggest ice cream.
To kids in Piedmont Circle, La Deara Crest and the Cleveland Avenue Homes, though, the bright green panel truck meant something altogether different: A decent meal, perhaps their only one of the weekend, is on the way.
Brycen White, an energetic and wide-eyed 5-year-old, recognized it as soon as the truck turned into the Farrell Court apartments Sunday and raced to be the first in line.
He wasn’t concerned whether the brown bag lunch contained a healthy sandwich, milk, fruit and vegetables or that a community group called H.O.P.E. of Winston-Salem — Help Our People Eat — makes sure the truck comes around like clockwork every Sunday.
No, the most pressing thing on the youngster’s mind was whether his bag lunch contained a yogurt. When he got it, Brycen beamed, let out a squeal of delight and raced to show his friends.
Off to one side, a smile creased Ben Tennille’s face.
“That’s why we do this,” he said quietly.
In six short months, the H.O.P.E. truck has become a staple in neighborhoods where fresh food is often a rumor.
It is part of a larger project dreamed up by Tennille and his wife, Marty, a retired couple with hearts as big as their imaginations. When they learned that children in Winston-Salem are more likely to go hungry than kids in Detroit or Chicago, they were horrified.
But instead of wringing their hands, stamping their feet in protest or simply writing a check, they decided to do something about it.
“Ever seen an 8-year-old kid walk up and ask if you have any fresh broccoli?” Ben Tennille asked Sunday just before the truck opened its back doors. “Now that’s interesting.”
Like a lot of these sorts of things, Project Hope started in a church. But not quite in the way you might think.
The preacher at their church, Centenary United Methodist, said during a sermon in spring 2013 that he’d had two visitors that week. The first mentioned that the minister preached good sermons but never said anything practical that parishioners could do. The second was a school principal who thanked the church for helping with a backpack program and lamented the fact that the food in the backpacks didn’t last all weekend, that children were often hungry on Sundays and couldn’t learn on Mondays.
“She wanted someone to fix Sunday,” Marty Tennille said. “We decided it should be a day of hope, not a day of hunger, so we researched programs around the country and came up with what we thought would work in Forsyth County.”
Ben Tennille had been the chief business court judge in North Carolina and Marty, a pediatrician, had run a successful practice, so they both know how to get things done. They hit upon the idea of a Sunday food delivery service to help fill that gap and launched into the research.
“The smartest thing we heard was to make sure the truck was ‘wrapped,’” Marty said. “We were told that the kids needed to feel like it was a food truck and not a church truck. They wouldn’t come otherwise.”
Since it started rolling in January, H.O.P.E. of Winston-Salem has mushroomed into something of which the entire community should be proud.
The Tennilles pick up items from the Second Harvest Food Bank and 50-pound bags of fresh food donated by the Vernon Produce Co. during the week.
A small group of volunteers meets every Saturday in a retreat center at the Children’s Home, where they set up an assembly line to make healthy bag lunches for kids and to box up fresh produce for adults who come with them. Groups from a variety of churches assemble lunches at their buildings, too, and pack them into giant coolers so a volunteer can pick them up later.
Around noon on Sundays, more volunteers start to trickle in at The Children’s Home to load the truck and a similarly painted minivan. The entire operation runs like Swiss trains; it stops at the same places every Sunday at the same time. By the time it finishes, more than 700 children get to eat and a few dozen food boxes are distributed.
“Ben and Marty are first-class,” said Harry Corpening, a volunteer who drove the food truck Sunday. “Ben is always looking down the road. He’s not thinking about how we can get it done today. He’s thinking, ‘How are we going to do this next year?’”
H.O.P.E has grown so large so fast that it is quickly outgrowing the space it rents from The Children’s Home. Organizers are looking for low-cost warehouse space or perhaps land where they can build.
The Tennilles also embraced and mastered technology. Social media helps spread the word, and an online program at the organization’s website allows volunteers to sign up for shifts, organizes them and sends out email reminders.
They’ve also set up a free phone app that allows users to locate places that serve meals, food pantries and other local places and organizations working to fight hunger in the community.
“We’re hoping that if two churches have dinners set up on Tuesdays, that they’ll be able to see that and maybe one of them could move theirs to Wednesday,” Marty Tennille said. “We want it to be a tool that helps to allocate resources better.”
Not long after noon Sunday, two vans filled with kids from Wake Forest University’s LENS leadership program — it’s aimed at high school kids and stands for Learn Experience Navigate Solve — rolled up to help.
They dove right in, hoisting heavy coolers and loading pints of milk into others. They also whipped out their phones to take and post photos and stories to Twitter and Instagram.
Javare Jones, a 21-year-old senior from Winston-Salem who is involved in coordinating the program, was especially pleased to see how well the students took to it.
“When you’re on campus, it’s easy to keep a distance from what’s going on around you,” he said. “It’s good to be personally invested in the city.”
Once they got out on the road is when they really saw the difference the H.O.P.E. truck makes. A handful of children were already lined up near a community building where the green truck would stop. Others, like Brycen, came running once they heard the familiar music being piped through a loudspeaker.
At Farrell Court, a handful of kids came with a parent.
“This carries such a good social message,” said Shawn Ford, who walked over with his two small children. “It teaches better morals, to eat better and to be healthy. It’s good for this community.”
Most, though, came alone or under the supervision of young teenagers not much older than themselves.
It was hard to take, knowing that there are kids in this community who are hungry and must fend for themselves because their parents can’t — or won’t — take care of them. But just when you might toss up your hands in despair, a bright green truck rolls around the corner spreading the message it has painted on its side: H.O.P.E. of Winston-Salem.