There’s no such thing as a free lunch. Unless you’re younger than 18 and live in Greenwood County.

Greenwood County School District 50’s Summer Food Service Program is in its fifth year and larger than ever. The program, funded by the United State Department of Agriculture and administered by the state’s Department of Education, provides free meals to children in high-need areas.

“We can produce as many meals as the community needs. We’re not limited in that aspect,” said Amy Stabler, the district’s director of child nutrition.

Six of the district’s schools and 36 community organizations — some as far afield as Ware Shoals and Ninety Six — serve as walk-in sites, where anybody too young to legally vote can show up and get a free hot meal. Anyone doing any structured activity for children is eligible to become a partner. Stabler said the group includes vacation bible schools, summer camps and athletic camps.

Hunger “is probably more prevalent than we like to believe,” said

Food insecurity is more prevalent in the area than many would like think, according to Teresa Goodman, executive director of the Mathews Mill Village-based nonprofit Community Initiatives. And it worsens during summer when students who are eligible for free and reduced lunches are home during weekdays.

“We have a large amount of working parents who, especially during the summer, the food cost may triple from their household — but their paycheck doesn’t,” she said.

Although District 50’s Summer Food Service Program is growing at a healthy clip — it had 22 offsite partners last summer — and serves about 1,500 students during its busiest weeks, only a fraction of those who need it take advantage of the program.

“Our focus needs to be getting the word out,” Stabler said. “We know the need is there.”

She said about half of the district’s 9,000-plus students have been identified as living in poverty — with at least 3,000 more in severe need than are currently served by the program.

The district and its offsite partners serve few walk-ins from the community — none who spoke to the Index-Journal had more than 10 regular walk-ins — something Stabler attributes to the lack of transportation among those living in poverty.

But some of the district’s partners are trying to take matters into their own hands.

Goodman said Community Initiatives, with its deep roots in the Mathews Mill Village, knows many of the people who could stand to benefit from the program and brings the food to them.

The Housing Authority’s Natasha Abercrombie, meanwhile, buses children from three of its public housing developments to the YMCA’s High Hopes summer camp at the John G. Lamb Community Enrichment Center.

The Y’s Brandi Willingham said High Hopes has more than 40 children of elementary school age. About 10 who aren’t in the camp walk-in regularly to pick up lunch, including Lupe Flores’s three children.

“I’m thankful for them (for) feeding the children in this area,” Flores said. “My baby girl, she says, ‘mama, take me to the lunch place.’”

It is Flores’s first year taking advantage of the program, which she’d learned of when a woman from the Y was handing out flyers in the mobile home park adjacent to the John G. Lamb Center.

Flores said she has told neighbors with children about the program, but several said they couldn’t bring their kids because they work and couldn’t hire a babysitter to bring their children on their behalf. One of her sisters has children but doesn’t take advantage of the program because it’s too far.

District 50 has six sites of its own. At Merrywood Elementary school, the program feeds children in summer school and about eight walk-ins from the community.

“I always advertise right before we get out of school,” said Antonia Goode, a food service worker for the district. She writes about it on her social media accounts and calls several people to let them know.

Stabler hopes the district will, like Community Initiatives, go to the people who need.

“Our goal is to grow (the program) where we can buy a food truck,” Stabler said. In the meantime, she just wants to continue to grow the program and get the word out for people like Flores, who live within walking distance of a site.

“God bless them for doing this,” Flores said.

Contact staff writer Aleks Gilbert at 864-943-5644.