Jane Anne Darken
Mississippi has the nation’s most significant number of documented food insecure individuals. Statewide non-profit Extra Table and Lafayette County’s The Pantry are working to stop food insecurities in Mississippi.
“In Hinds County, right next to the capital in Jackson, has more food insecure people in that one county than the entire state of North Dakota,” said Extra Table’s Executive Director Martha Allen said. “Even though we know North Dakota isn’t hugely populated, we’re comparing a county by the capital where the resources are originating to an entire state. Poverty, hunger and health issues all linger in the same circle, and we are working hard to break this cycle.”
The website Move For Hunger reports that there are more people who are food insecure living in Hinds County (61,000) than the entire state of North Dakota (55,000). Extra Table is a non-profit organization committed to ending hunger by providing food pantries and soup kitchens with the new and healthy food they need to feed the hungry in their community.
Allen said their partnership with Sysco is like dealing with Monopoly money. “I call it Sysco money,” Allen said. “$500 with Sysco money is really $1,000-$1,500 worth of grocery store (merchandise). We have a really high buying power since we purchase in such bulk.”
This partnership is unique because Sysco delivers canned goods the last Wednesday of every month and directly unloads the cans to the pantry. “Most volunteers at food pantries are typically older adults who can’t haul boxes of heavy cans, so Sysco delivers the boxes and put it on their shelves.”
Extra Table delivers a variety of lean proteins, fruit, low-sodium vegetables and soups, and whole grains. “The pantries know what they’re going to get when they receive food from us,” Allen said, “good hearty foods.”
Allen said Extra Table differs from a canned food drive that would receive items, such as macaroni and cheese, water chestnuts, pie filling and other items people can’t or don’t know how to prepare.
“Sadly, the reality of a canned food drive is people will donate anything that they have in their kitchen and are unaware of the expiration dates,” said Allen. “Hunger in Mississippi sadly exists between 5 o’clock on a Friday afternoon, and a child is getting chips and soda from a gas station, and a free and reduced school lunch on Monday.
“Being able to offer food that is healthy is the biggest thing. Studies show that if a child lacks nutrition in their early years, their brain development will never catch up. If they don’t have the proper eating habits or are (not) taught the right eating habits, then they will carry that unhealthy lifestyle over to adulthood.”
Allen said Extra Table holds 10-12 fundraisers a year, but “the biggest thing people can do to help is to donate because $5 is really $10 in ‘Sysco bucks,’” Allen said. “We also have monthly members and donors who allow us to know that we can keep shipping out the food we need to be shipped.”
Extra Table has partnered with 33 food pantries across 29 counties, and by the end of this year, they will have added three more college campus food pantries and 73 food pantries through the Catholic Church, making it 100 partners.
Lafayette County’s’ The Pantry is one of Extra Table’s partnered food pantries. Executive Director John Kohne said someone donated to Lafayette Country for Extra Table to make sure they have some food coming to them. “We’re blessed to have it,” Kohne said.
Kohne said of all Mississippi counties, Lafayette is the third strongest financially. He said the Mississippi Food Network from Jackson prioritizes on need, and since Oxford is so low on that list, they don’t receive as much compared to other counties.
The Pantry serves an average of 500 families a month, “which is 1,200-1,400 individuals, and among those numbers, at least 275 of them are children,” Kohne said. They also serve 350 seniors who are strictly living on Social Security. “It’s almost like clockwork,” Kohne said.
The Pantry falls under the umbrella of the Mid-South Food Bank from Memphis, which is a branch of Feeding America, a United States-based nonprofit that is a nationwide network of more than 200 food banks. Since Mid-South Food Bank is a regional agent, The Pantry receives large amounts of free food from Kroger and Walmart.
“Last Friday, Walmart gave us 17 boxes of dry and canned goods and 17 boxes of frozen vegetables, pasta and fudge bars,” Kohne said. “There are two ways to run a food pantry. You can either just box up a box and hand it to the client that’s in need, or you can be more involved and provide them with a grocery list based upon family size to provide them access to get their groceries.”
Kohne said when families come to The Pantry, they get a list that is based off family size, and a volunteer walks through with them to ensure the numbers are correct for the family size. At the end of their shopping, they receive at least two bags of bread that came from donations from Panera or Kroger. He said there is always a snack bag and apples and oranges to ensure they have fruit in their diet.
Kohne said people find out about The Pantry through local churches “regardless of what belief, word of mouth is key.” The Pantry is open on Wednesday and Thursday mornings from 8-11 a.m.