Mission Memphis Day 26: Mid-South Food Bank

The Experience

For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to feed people who were hungry.  When I was young, my parents and I would organize food drives in our neighborhood and collect donations in our little red wagon. The salient part of this experience was not just going door to door in the Florida summer heat, but the fact that my parents took the time to explain why we were doing it. They told me that I’d be surprised by the people who visit the Mandarin Food Bank. They might be the people next to us at the park or even one of the kids sitting next to me in class. Their message was profound – you never know what hunger looks like. As if that wasn’t already a lot to absorb as an eight year old, they explained that there are many people who work really hard, but still can’t feed their families. It’s not for us to judge. It’s just our job to help.

Someone once told me that other cultures have the reverse of our birthday traditions. Instead of getting on your birthday, you spend the day giving and I loved this idea. Each year, I like to spend some time volunteering on my birthday and most recently I decided to spend that time with the Mid-South Food Bank.

Mid-South Food Bank

As part of this project, I went back to the Mid-South Food Bank to help and learn more about their organization. A lot of parents have asked me about volunteer opportunities for their children at the Mid-South Food Bank, but sometimes sorting cans in a busy warehouse is not the best way to help children understand the concept of hunger. Thankfully, Paula Rushing, the volunteer coordinator at the Mid-South Food Bank, understands this dilemma – the desire to expose children to hunger and poverty in a way that is salient for them. Paula offers a program called the “Budget Experience” where children are given play money to spend during the course of the exercise. Then life happens from their tight budget, there are unexpected expenses – a hospitalization, a roof leak, car repairs – which eat into their budget. After shelling out cash for the necessities, the kids are asked to shop for enough groceries to feed their family for a week. After they complete their trip to the grocery store, Paula helps the students assess their spending habits, and their food choice: do you have enough food and did you purchase healthy food.  In addition, the students watch an excellent video from Sesame Street and PBS called Growing Hope Against Hunger, which presents the idea of childhood hunger in a way that’s accessible for children.

While I was at the Mid-South Food Bank, I had the opportunity to talk with their Director, Estella Mayhue-Greer. Estella is very polished: poised and confident, each word is selected carefully and each sentence is constructed thoughtfully. Everything about Estella says confident, capable, and passionate. When I asked her about the mission of the food bank and the importance of their work, I expected her to quote some stats about hunger in the Mid-South and how many pounds of food they distribute. Instead, she opened with a story. “When I was in second grade, I remember eating dinner and asking my mom why she wasn’t eating with us” and it wasn’t until later that Estella realized her mother was passing up the opportunity to eat in order to make sure her children were fed. I looked at Estella intently. I would never have guessed that about her. And that’s the point – you can’t assess need and hunger just by looking at someone.

Within the first two minutes, it’s easy to tell that this is more than a job for Estella. “I feel like everything I’ve done and learned in my life has prepared me for this role” she told me. She’s on a mission to change the way people thing about hunger. She described instances in the past where some food pantries would try to hang on to food as if each recipient were required to pass judgment in order to receive their meals. I could tell that this scenario – judging and withholding is one of her hot button issues. She recanted one of her famous speeches:

We need to start thinking differently. The face of hunger has changed. Many people are doing everything they’re supposed to do to make ends meet and they’re making hard decisions about how to spend their money. Stop holding onto their food. It’s not your food and you’re not the food police.

I said the only thing that came to mind: “I hope I’m never on the receiving end of one of your speeches.” She laughed. I meant it!

“We’re only feeding about half of the people who are hungry and we need to start thinking about the big picture” she said. Estella went on to explain that their mission is about more than extinguishing hunger: “It’s about moving people from hunger to health.” The Mid-South Food Bank is committing themselves to providing as much healthy food as possible to their customers, but it’s not without challenges. For example, fresh produce is a staple of a healthy diet, but it spoils quickly, so there’s a huge push to acquire, sort and distribute fresh produce efficiently in order to get as much as possible into the hands of their customers. She explained that their new emphasis on produce has generated additional demand for volunteers. I asked what would happen to their mission if they had no volunteers. I wish you could have seen the look on her face. For the first time in our conversation, Estella seemed to be at a loss for words. After a long pause, she eventually said, “We would be lost.”

Now I feel that I should confess something to you. I volunteer in different food pantries around the city and I am always quick to carry groceries for someone, because it gives me an extra opportunity to get to know people. Recently, I took food to someone’s car and noticed that their car was really nice and I made a snap judgment. I remember thinking “Why do you need the food pantry if you drive a car like that.” I’m mad at myself for entertaining that thought for any length of time even if it was only a split second. . As Estella reminded me, they might have borrowed that car from a neighbor in order to pick up their food. That car might be their last possession. It might be their only source of shelter. Sometimes I make snap judgments even when I don’t mean to, but I’ve realized that the more I volunteer and the more people I met, the more compassionate I become.

I asked Paula what she hopes volunteers will take away from their experience with the Mid-South Food Bank. In addition to understanding their mission and the scope of their operation, Paula said, “I want volunteers to know that no matter what they do at the Food Bank (sweeping the floor, stuffing letters or working with food) they are helping to feed the community.  The gift of one volunteer hour enables the Food Bank to distribute 44 meals!”

Do you have an hour to give?

Refrigerated truck at the Mid-South Food Bank

How to Help

Volunteer!

  • There are so many ways to volunteer at the Mid-South Food Bank! You can work in the warehouse, on Saturdays, as an individual, or as a group. You can also do clerical work, help with the backpack program, or help with special events. There are many rewarding ways to be involved.
  • It’s important to note that the Mid-South Food Bank does NOT have client-facing volunteer opportunities at their main headquarters. If that’s the experience you’re looking for, please contact a local food pantry – they’re in every area of the city including Collierville and Germantown.
  • Help Paula facilitate the “Budget Experience” courses for kids, with more than 5,000 volunteers a year, this coordinator could use an extra set of hands to help with some of their programs.
  • Contact Paula Rushing prushing@midsouthfoodbank.org about volunteer opportunities.

Host a food drive! Their most needed items are:

  • Money to purchase wholesome food
  • Canned meats, including tuna, stews, chicken and dumplings, chili, Spam, soups
  • Peanut butter
  • Canned fruits
  • Canned veggies
  • Canned 100% fruit juice
  • Any non-perishable item, but no glass containers, please

Donate! The Mid-South Food Bank can stretch your dollar! For every $1 you donate, they can purchase $4 worth of food! Can you spare a dollar? How about ten dollars?

Supply an item on their wish list:

  • Bob trucks (large refrigerated trucks like the one in the picture above)
  • Freezers
  • Forklifts
  • Palette jacks

Educate! Teach yourself, your family and your friends about the widespread problem of hunger insecurity. Learn the facts about hunger.

Participate in a special event like one of their upcoming food drives.

If you’re thinking about volunteering with this organization or in general, but aren’t quite ready to jump in, email me at sarah.petschonek@gmail.com. Thinking about helping is the first step!

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