For the past 22 years I have written this weekly column, 1000 words a week, 52 weeks a year, never missing a week. Those 1,100,000+ words are typically written about food. Though I call an audible on occasion when it comes to travel, family, or some type of culinary oddity.
Having been in the restaurant business for over four decades, I’ve spent my adult life feeding people. Though today I won’t focus on restaurant customers but feeding Mississippians who are in need through the non-profit, Extra Table.
First, a little backstory. In 2009 I received a call from the Edwards Street Fellowship Center, a local mission pantry. At the time they were feeding 800 families each month. They had completely run out of food. They were panicking and asked if there was any way I could help them stock their shelves. “Sure,” I replied. I figured the easiest, best, route to help them get the food they need would be to call my food service distributor, place an order, and have them dropship the groceries the next day. It worked, and they were able to serve their clientele.
Out of that one phone call, Extra Table was born. I began to think that there must be an easier way help feed those in need. I went on a fact-finding mission across the state to delve deeper into the hunger issue. To be honest, I was skeptical that there was even a hunger problem in Mississippi. This is America, I thought. I had no problem understanding hunger issues in a third-world Central American country, but certainly not here. It didn’t take long to learn there is a huge problem in Mississippi. Seriously, huge. Mississippi is number one in food insecurity.
Additionally, I learned that Mississippi is also the number one state in the nation for obesity. My skepticism heightened again, as I naively assumed that we can’t be the least fed and most obese. Then I learned that in America, obesity and hunger almost always go together. People who don’t have enough money to lead a proper diet exist on the cheapest foods available and usually live out of convenience stores drinking the cheapest sugar-laden drinks and eating snack foods. The problem is real. My eyes were opened. I set out to do something about it.
Extra Table is based on the premise of what if every home and business had an extra table where they could feed those in need. If so, what would that look like?
During that eye-opening discovery period, I learned that most food pantries survive on food drives, but food drives are one of the most ineffective ways to stock the shelves of a feeding agency. Many times, up to 60% of food collected in food drives has to be thrown away. Unfortunately, too many people use it as an opportunity to clean out their home pantry. As I was touring those agencies, I saw items such as cans of blueberry pie filling, out-of-date foods, and shelves full of nothing but green beans, which are certainly good, but they are also the cheapest food to purchase at a grocery store and the number one item donated for food drives. Agencies don’t need more green beans, they need healthy proteins.
Mississippi has over 560,000 citizens who are food insecure. Over 162,000 Mississippi children suffer from food insecurity, many of whom eat a school breakfast, school lunch, and then don’t eat again until the next day. Over 15% of the state’s senior citizens are— at this moment— trying to figure out if they can pay the electricity bill or go to the grocery store. Senior citizens living on fixed incomes, and kids who are out of school and won’t eat again until the next morning have no use for blueberry pie filling.
I founded Extra Table on two key principles that we still adhere to today. 1.) 100% of the money we raise for food will always go to purchase food. 2.) the food will always be healthy food.
We’ve all read the news stories of nonprofits and charities who spend 50%, 60%, even more than 85% on administrative fees and salaries. If I was going to form a nonprofit, we would never spend people’s hard-earned donations in that manner. We have— from day one— always used 100% of the money we raise for food to purchase food. We formed an entirely separate 501c3, with its own board of directors, that raises money for the minimal administrative fees and salaries. For every $1.00 donated to Extra Table, 5.9 full meals are distributed.
I believe Extra Table is the most efficient and effective nonprofit in the state. We operate a statewide charity, sending food to agencies from state line to state line, with only two employees. Those two employees— Martha Allen, our amazing and dedicated executive director who is a true force of nature, and Rhonda Hayden our devoted and enthusiastic program director— work out of a borrowed corner of my office. Extra Table pays no office expenses. Also, through the generosity of our partnership with Chow Purchasing, we now purchase food by the tractor-trailer load at below wholesale prices. Thanks to Chow, we don’t pay for a warehouse, we don’t pay for a truck, and we don’t pay for transportation costs. Most importantly— thanks to the generosity of our donors— our agencies don’t pay for food.
That is one of the things I love most about Extra Table. When we approach an agency in the state, we let them know that we are from Extra Table, and we would like to start sending them food on a monthly basis. They are almost always suspicious from the start. “How much is it going to cost us?” they often ask.
“Nothing, we just want to ship food to your agency.”
“Do you want our donor list?”
“No, we just want to give you food.” Many times, they remain skeptical until the first shipment arrives. Then they become raving fans.
From that small order to Edwards Street Fellowship Center in 2009, we have grown to the point that we shipped 5.9 million pounds of food to agency partners across the state in 2020. As was stated earlier, we were founded on the question: What if every home and business had an extra table where they could feed those in need, and if so, what would that look like? I believe it would look like exactly what Extra Table has become.
To learn more about what you can do to feed your neighbors in need go to extratable.org