This is the season of giving. We give gifts, we give of our time, and we give food. For decades, when Thanksgiving rolled around, I would volunteer my time at a soup kitchen, dishing up turkey and dressing for those less fortunate. Sometimes I’d donate a can or two from my home pantry for my church’s White Christmas canned food drive. But if I am to be completely honest, the cans were something that was usually old, possibly out of date, and most likely a food item I didn’t want. Occasionally, I would give a box of toys to an agency that made sure they got to kids in need. It wasn’t until I founded Extra Table that I realized that those in need of food are just as hungry in the spring, summer, and fall as they are around Thanksgiving and Christmas. Food insecurity doesn’t go away after New Year’s Day.
That’s why we go to great lengths at Extra Table to spread our deliveries of fresh, healthy food to our partner agencies all throughout the year.
Extra Table was founded fortuitously. Eleven years ago, I received a phone call from The Edwards Street Fellowship Center, a mission pantry in my hometown of Hattiesburg, that was feeding 800 families a month. They had completely run out of food and asked if I could help them stock the shelves of their small mission pantry before their clients arrived in a few days. “I’d be happy to,” I said. Out of that one phone call a statewide charity was born.
Extra Table is based on the premise— what if every home and business had an extra table where they could feed those in need. I started purchasing food at wholesale prices and had the food delivered to Edwards Street, and within a few months, to other agencies all across the state.
To be honest, in those early days, I was a little skeptical that there was even a hunger problem in Mississippi. A poor, third-world country? Sure. But here in America? Certainly not. I went on a fact-finding mission across the state and learned quickly that there is a HUGE problem.
Over 600,000 Mississippians suffer from what the government calls “food insecurity.” Over 200,000 of those are kids who eat a school breakfast, a school lunch, and then don’t eat again until the next morning. Over 120,000 are seniors who are— at this moment— trying to figure out if they can pay the light bill or go to the grocery store. During a global pandemic those numbers increase at a very alarming rate.
There are plenty of agencies across the state who are providing food to those in need. The problem is that many of them can’t keep enough food on the shelves, and many times the food is very unhealthy.
I founded Extra Table on two key principles: 100% of the money we raise for food will always go towards purchasing food— and— the food we distribute to agencies will always be healthy food.
Back then, Mississippi was number one in food insecurity, but also number one in obesity. Originally, I had a problem reconciling those two. But I quickly learned that people who don’t have enough money to lead proper diets live out of convenience stores, drinking cheap sugar-laden beverages and eating junk food. It’s real. It’s here. It’s a massive problem. And it’s not just in the areas and neighborhoods one might expect. There are children, seniors, and veterans missing meals and living on the edge of starvation in neighborhoods and counties next to you, no matter where you live in this state. The problem is widespread. One out of five Mississippians suffer from food insecurity.
Today, through the steady leadership of Extra Table executive director, Martha Allen and her staff of one (an unprecedented staff size for a non-profit that effectively covers an entire state), Extra Table ships over 30 tons of fresh, healthy food, every month, to 51 agencies all over Mississippi, from the Coast to the Delta, all through the Hill country, and many points in between. In addition to that 30 tons per month going to 51 agencies, Extra Table has also distributed over 360,000 fresh eggs, over 600,000 gallons of milk, over two tons of liquid eggs, fields of Salad Days lettuces, squash from Two Dog Farms, and more than 12 tons of rice from Mike Wagner’s Two Brooks Farm in the Delta to Mississippians in need during this eight-month COVID crisis.
We have also distributed over 25,000 masks. Last week we distributed over $50,000.00 of Mississippi Gulf Coast shrimp, and this week we partnered with the Beau Rivage Casino to distribute 600 turkeys.
It’s all done through the help of Chow Purchasing, and the kindness of volunteers and donors who have a passion for feeding our Mississippi neighbors in need. To them I say, “Thank you. Well done.” But there is still so much to do.
We may all agree that November and December are a time of giving, but Mississippi schoolchildren in need are just as hungry in June and July. If you would like to help feed your Mississippi neighbors in need, go to extratable.org and see how you, too, can live in the solution.
After four decades in the restaurant industry, I often ask myself a question: “At the end of the day, do I want to be the guy who fed people filet mignon, or do I want to be the guy who fed people canned tuna?” It’s an easy answer. Canned tuna wins every time.
Have a blessed holiday season, stay safe, stay well, take care of one another, and please remember your 600,000+ neighbors who don’t know from where their next meal might come.