County communities rolled into action Wednesday, collaborating to make sure Blount’s kids won’t go hungry during a time of widespread uncertainty by providing meals through food trucks and school buses.

Steve Hepperly, an elder at RIO Revolution in Maryville, conceived the idea early Monday, immediately mobilizing food trucks and volunteers to hand out free meals in a drive-thru in the church parking lot.

But like many other responses to COVID-19 outbreak nationwide, the plan had evolved by Wednesday morning.

Originally, two food trucks were going to be the only source of free meals. But Hepperly wanted to do more. “About 10 o’clock I had the idea, why don’t we just get some of these buses that normally run their routes and just load them down with food.”

Combined, the food trucks and four buses handed out 2,250 meals throughout the day, according to RIO pastor Pacer Hepperly, Steven’s brother and pastor at RIO.

This is not the first time Steven has reacted to disaster in the U.S. by gathering community support and using his own resources as a prolific Blount business owner.

He remembered the time during 2016’s Hurricane Matthew when he saw people in Texas were being charged $75 for a case of water. “I put a post on Facebook and I said, ‘Look. I’m going to send some water to Texas.’ I got 16 tractor trailer loads of water come in one case, two cases, three cases at a time. That’s the kind of community we live in.”

Hepperly wants to use his reach and his resources to help people because he remembers a time years ago when he was the one who needed help.

“My wife and I, we got married and lived in Townsend, and just to be honest with you, we were really poor,” Hepperly remembered. “My brother Pacer has come and brought us food before. But I own a couple businesses now and I’m in a place where I can give back.”

Strategic outreach

Giving back not only manifested in food bought Wednesday. Hepperly also saw an almost immediate response from businesses.

Two food trucks — REO Cheesewagon and Meatballs, Madness and More, aka M3 — immediately offered not only to be a part of the free meal. They also offered to pay for some of the food themselves.

“We want to feed into our local community,” said Cheesewagon owner Tina Rhea. “We say, ‘we’re going to feed your soul first.’”

She said she’s been encouraged by the response from people who wanted to get involved in handing out meals. She even had to turn away volunteers. “Everybody’s willing to pitch in and say ‘What can we do? How can we make sure that not only kids but families are fed.’ We’re not turning anybody away.”

M3 owner Jason Andrews agreed. Stepping aside from preparing food with his team for a moment, he reflected on the role businesses play in responding to the COVID-19 outbreak in their own communities.

“Hope, just hope,” he said “This is going to come to pass, but in the meantime, everyone has to look where they’re at and give where they can.”

‘Don’t feed the fear’

Both Rhea and Andrews agreed there could be a balance between ministry and opportunity.

“Don’t feed into the fear,” Rhea said. “We’ve had a lot of support from the Blount Chamber and the Blount Partnership. We’re seeing them lead the charge with with right attitude.”

That leadership is encouraging businesses, Rhea said, adding just as people made it through the recession, they can make it through the potentially tough economic times ahead as well.

The free meal program he organized will continue in Townsend on Friday and in Alcoa and Greenback during the last week of March.

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