Imagine the joys of childhood, a time filled with innocence and carefree play. But what if those innocent times are clouded by hunger?
The Greater Memphis area is plagued by food insecurities, and it’s more than just children. Whole families and senior citizens don’t get enough good food to eat, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year.
In Shelby County alone, there are over 200,000 people who don’t get enough to eat. In the Mid-South Food Bank’s service area – 31 counties across West Tennessee, Arkansas and North Mississippi – there are more than 423,000 people who don’t get enough to eat.
A range of organizations big and small work every day to bring food to those who need it, from food pantries serving small rural communities to church groups that pack backpacks of food for children to shelters providing a hot meal for the homeless. At the center of much of the work is the Mid-South Food Bank, an organization founded in 1981 and a member of the national network of food banks, Feeding America.
The food bank doesn’t provide direct services to individuals in need. Rather, it works as a food distribution center for partner organizations.
The Mid-South Food Bank is a middle man of sorts; individual, business and organizational donations of food and money to purchase food comes into the food bank. The food bank then distributes food to community agencies that are on the ground feeding Mid-Southerners in need.
Partner agencies range from food pantries operated by churches or communities to after-school programs, residential facilities, alcohol and drug rehab centers, emergency shelters or any other nonprofit organization that provides food at no charge to those individuals who qualify to receive it.
“Our goal is to save (nonprofit organizations) dollars so they can provide food to address the needs of people and circumstances they face that brings them to food insecurity,” said Estella Mayhue-Greer, president and CEO of the Mid-South Food Bank. “One thing we’ve found in our recent survey is that in the beginning we were just addressing people living in poverty. But we find now there is a group called the working poor, they’re working daily, struggling to make ends meet. They find themselves with tough choices, ‘Do I pay the utility bill or buy food? Will I put gas in the car or am I going to buy food?’ We find that food is often left off the table, particularly with seniors making those choices.”
The Mid-South Food Bank’s service area includes 18 counties in North Mississippi, 12 in Tennessee and one in Arkansas where it works with over 200 partner agencies. Those Mississippi Delta region communities also are some of the poorest counties in the U.S.
The food bank has three focuses: feeding families, children and seniors.
One effort in feeding the whole family is through mobile food banks, including one that reaches DeSoto County once a month.
It’s not the only way people in that community gain access to much-needed food. There are six food pantries across the county working to feed those in need. The mobile food bank came about in 2012 as an extension of those efforts.
Anna Dickerson, director of Volunteer Northwest Mississippi, was part of that effort to figure out how to get more food to families, especially during the summer to address the children on free lunch.
The Mid-South Food Bank brings 30,000 pounds of food to Landers Center in Southaven. It’s then distributed to pre-screened clients of the six food banks in the community as a way to supplement their efforts.
Dickerson’s organization coordinates 75 to 100 volunteers who begin work at about 1:30 p.m. bagging items into household sizes. The monthly average is 700 families served.
“All of our product is bagged in Kroger bags so when they come home and unpack in front of a 16-year-old child it looks like mom went to Kroger,” Dickerson said. “We work hard to help the dignity of the client. … (Volunteers) get to see the people they’re helping. They see it’s church members or people they go to school with. They understand it’s food insecurity that’s in DeSoto County.”
Dickerson said the mobile food pantry is also a good opportunity for other community service agencies to set up, such as health clinics and literacy efforts. And she’s always looking for volunteers, whether it’s groups from area businesses, churches or athletic teams, or families or individuals.
Volunteers are the lifeblood for all organizations fighting food insecurity. There always is a need for volunteers and donations of food and money, Greer said. Money donations can be stretched further than food, in part because of the ability to buy in bulk, often by the tractor-trailer load.
For every dollar the Mid-South Food Bank receives, it can distribute the equivalent of three meals.
The food bank has 45 employees including drivers, and warehouse and office staffs to serve 31 counties and distribute 15 million pounds of food annually. The food bank had 11,000 volunteers last year to help the cause.
“We can’t do that without volunteers,” Greer said. “We need volunteers to help sort product. Often when there’s a food drive people clean out their pantries. We have to go through and make sure it hasn’t exceeded the date. We need our volunteers to help with that.”
Greer said volunteers range from individuals and families to churches, corporations on team-building exercises and student groups on spring break.
Volunteers are needed year-round, but the holidays are busier times. That doesn’t mean it’s the only time people in the Mid-South go hungry. In fact, summer is an especially important time, particularly for children who depend on free lunch at school to get two meals a day during the academic year.
There are more than 55,000 children in Shelby County who are food insecure; in DeSoto County it’s 24,000.
Joe Carson of Memphis Dream Center is on the front lines of the battle against food insecurity for the community’s children. Memphis Dream Center began a program called Feed Memphis in 2010. Connected to Shelby County Schools, the program began with one school and has grown to six.
The group takes food bags to the six schools to provide meals and snacks for every child for the weekend.
“We took the most vulnerable schools and provide those resources to every child at those schools,” Carson said. “Through those relationships we began to realize the food was just a symptom of a greater issue, and that’s poverty in our city. We began looking for areas where we could connect and come alongside families to help walk them through what they’re going through and lift them emotionally and spiritually.”
There are some 3,800 individuals served per week through Memphis Dream Center’s various feeding programs. The six schools are Wells Station Elementary, Jackson Elementary, Douglass Elementary and Middle, Vollentine Elementary and Kingsbury Elementary.
In addition to feeding children at school, the Memphis Dream Center recently opened a wellness center at 255 N. Highland St. where families can go to learn how to become healthy. It includes nutrition, exercise and maternity care. Families can learn how to shop for healthy foods and cook nutritious meals.
The Memphis Dream Center is supported largely by Life Church of Memphis but anyone can go to memphisdreamcenter.com to make donations. The cost for one food bag that covers a weekend for one child is $7.
Along with the need for providing food to those in need is one for the community to better understand what food insecurity means.
“It’s not lazy people who don’t want to work,” Greer said, pointing out a misconception about why people are hungry. “I’ve had comments like these people are overweight so they’re not missing a meal. They might be overweight because of the lack of nutritious food they’re eating.”
No matter the organization or community, food insecurity is a real need across the Mid-South that must be tackled, Greer said.
“Our focus is on moving people from hunger to hope,” she said. “And when I talk about those people working every day and still struggling to make ends meet, hopefully we’re helping them be more productive at work because they know the food bank is here to help. Those parents don’t have to worry about how they’ll feed their children. That senior doesn’t have to worry about missing a meal because they have to get prescriptions filled. That would be impossible to do without the outstanding support we get from the community. That’s not just providing hope for people who are food insecure. That shows this is a loving community with hope for a better day for all.”