It is said that Texans have an unparalleled pride for their state. My wife grew up there and my father-in-law is from there. Though I find it hard to believe any Texan would have more affection for their state than I have for mine.
I love Mississippi.
I could spend my remaining column inches listing the gifts Mississippi has given to the world in the fields of art, music, literature, food, and culture, but it would take way more than one column to cover all of that. We are blessed in so many ways.
Though, here in my home state of Mississippi, we are last in many of the things we want to be first in and first in so many of the things we want to be last in. Unfortunately, one of the main things we are last in is hunger. Mississippi leads the nation in food insecurity. That was a fact that I didn’t believe early on.
Back in 2009 I received a call from the Edward St. Fellowship Center, a local mission pantry. ESFC was formed by a collective of Methodist churches in the area. At the time they were feeding approximately 800 families a month. They were completely out of food, the shelves were empty, and they had clients coming in at the end of the week. They were desperate and asked if I could help them out with a food donation. I figured the easiest, quickest, best way to get food on their shelves was to call in a food order to one of my suppliers and have it drop-shipped to the agency the next day. That happened and they were able to serve their clients that week.
That incident got me thinking that if there were an easier solution to keeping those shelves filled maybe they wouldn’t get empty so often.
Extra Table was born.
Though, to be honest with you, at that time I was skeptical there was even a hunger problem in Mississippi. I could see some third world, Central American country having a hard time feeding its citizens. But “This is America,” I thought. I was wrong. Very wrong. I went on a fact-finding mission across the state visiting local food pantries and soup kitchens to see if the problem was a real one. It didn’t take me long to discover there is a huge hunger problem in America, and I was living in the state that led the nation.
During that fact-finding mission I learned that many mission pantries and soup kitchens are mostly supplied by canned food drives. Those agencies won’t tell you this, but I will, canned food drives are the least effective way to tackle the hunger problem, anywhere. As I was walking through these agencies trying to figure out how to help solve the hunger problem, I noticed things on the shelves like blueberry pie filling and other items that serve no purpose in the fight against hunger.
I founded Extra Table on two key principles:
1.) 100% of the money we raise for food will go to purchase food. I didn’t want to be a part of any nonprofit or charity that wasted money on excessive salaries and expenses. To do this we formed an entirely separate 501C3 that raises money for our minimal administrative costs.
2.) The food we deliver to agencies must be healthy food. On that initial investigative tour, I noticed most of the foods were not nutritious foods and I made the decision to try our best to deal with low fat proteins, low sugar fruits, low sodium vegetables, and healthy grains.
The Extra Table formula was simple from the start. We would raise money. We would use that money to purchase food at wholesale prices, and then we would deliver that food directly to the agencies, at no cost to them. It was taking business principles and applying them to a nonprofit.
The agencies were skeptical at first. We would approach a food pantry or soup kitchen and introduce ourselves, “Hey, we are Extra Table. We believe you’re doing a great job feeding those in need. We want to send you food.”
“How much is it going to cost? They would ask.
“Nothing. We just want to send you food.” We replied.
“Do you want our donor list?”
“No. We just want to send you food.”
Do you want our mailing list?”
“No. We just want to send you food every month. We will go out and raise the money. We will use that money to purchase healthy food, and— once a month— we will deliver it to your door and even unload the truck and put it on your shelves.”
They remained skeptical… until the first delivery arrived.
It didn’t take long before Extra Table grew much larger than my schedule allowed. Over the past 14 years we have had three executive directors, each of whom have done a stellar job in growing this nonprofit.
The problem is real. Mississippi is a relatively small state of 2.9 million people. Out of that population there are 670,000 Mississippians who are food insecure. That’s over 20%. Over 200,000 of those are kids, many of whom eat a school breakfast and a school lunch, and then don’t eat again until the next day. Over 125,000 our senior citizens who, at this moment, are trying to decide if they can afford to pay the electricity bill or go to the grocery store. The problem is real. And it is unacceptable.
My eyes were opened in 2009. I grew up in the home of a single mom public school art teacher. We didn’t have much money. But I never missed a meal.
In my opinion, Extra Table is the most efficient and effective nonprofit in the entire state. We run a statewide charity with a staff of three people. During COVID, we shipped 5.9 million pounds of food to over 60 agencies with a staff of one for most of the year. The Extra Table trucks go out to over 62 agencies across the state of Mississippi once a month. This year, Extra Table executive director, Martha Allen and her team of two, will have provided over six million healthy meals to Mississippians in need. We also have so much more in the works.
One of the primary components we installed in the Extra Table business plan was to keep food coming into our partner agencies in a steady manner. Everyone thinks of childhood hunger around Thanksgiving and Christmas. But the sad truth is kids are just as hungry in June and July as they are in November and December. Most feeding agencies face their greatest obstacles in the summer months. That’s why our monthly deliveries are spread out evenly across the entire year.
Mississippi has challenges like any other state. Though one of the things that makes me most proud of my home state is that— even though we are the poorest state in the country— we are one of the most charitable. The first time I heard that statistic it was no surprise to me because I have been affiliated with Extra Table for the last 14 years. I have seen the charitable nature of Mississippians and it’s just one more thing that makes me so proud to live in this state I call home.
If you are looking for a place to make an end-of-the-year donation, go to extratable.org and help us continue to feed our neighbors in need.
(Robert St. John is a chef, restaurateur and published cookbook author who lives in Hattiesburg, Miss.)