Banking On It

Even with need rising and donations dwindling, the Mid-South Food Bank holds to its mission.



Brandon Dill

On a late-September morning, the sun is burning away an early fog and praise music drifts through the air, as people mingle outside St. Mary’s Catholic Church Soup Kitchen. A mix of men and women move through a serving line, while others are finishing up what may be their only meal of the day.

Manager Ron Bezon arrived before the doors opened at 6:30 a.m. When the downtown ministry closes at 10:30 a.m., his team of volunteers will have served up to 200 people. These hungry guests will start with juice and peaches, cookies or donuts, then receive a main meal that consists of two sandwiches, a 16-ounce cup of made-from-scratch soup, and a dessert of fruit, candy, or chips. While far from lavish, the meal is generous. “It will sustain them for a day,” says Bezon, who has overseen the kitchen for nine years. He’s broken up some fights, chastised clients for foul language, and dealt with various “bad apples,” he says. But he’s gotten to know the “95 percent” who come not only for daily sustenance but for what Bezon calls “a routine structure administered with love.” 

On a kitchen wall is ample evidence of clients’ appreciation — letters, thank-you notes, pictures. One example is a photograph of Bezon opening the doors of the soup kitchen; it’s superimposed over a drawing of a bird flying between palm trees. The artist — “Arthur” — told Bezon that it represents the bird of paradise, “because when I come here, it’s like coming to paradise.” 

Many at St. Mary’s are longtime regulars, but quite a few are not. “Our numbers are picking up,” says Bezon, who works six days a week, “and I’m seeing a lot of new faces.”

That’s not all he’s seeing. Bezon and others who run soup kitchens, food pantries, and other ministries that provide food to those in need are also seeing more empty shelves at the Mid-South Food Bank, the area’s major source of charitable food distribution. Walking through the Food Bank warehouse on Dudley near downtown, the organization’s president and CEO, Estella Mayhue-Greer, points to the shelves in a section “that used to be jammed with juices and beverages.” Today it holds a few scattered containers of bottled water and tea. The great maw of a freezer — big enough to store four tractor-trailer loads of food — holds a few lone containers that might fill a pickup truck. “It’s the worst shortage I’ve seen in the 15 years I’ve worked here,” says Mayhue-Greer. “Agencies are telling us they’ve had to turn people away.” 

“A Tough Situation”

The problem couldn’t come at a worse time, when need is greater than it’s been in years. Agencies served by the Food Bank are reporting an increase in clients, not just of those living in chronic poverty but those whose unemployment benefits have run out and families live with one income, or none at all. Mayhue-Greer stresses that it’s not just the homeless who face hunger daily. “It’s those whose income is above the level of receiving food stamps or help from nutrition assistance programs,” she says. “It’s people who have lost jobs. It’s also people who work every day. Some even own homes but they’re struggling to make ends meet. So the homeowner is wondering, ‘Will I pay my mortgage or get food?’ The elderly are thinking, ‘Will I get this prescription or will I eat?’ The working person is thinking, ‘Will I get my car fixed so I can drive to my job or will I buy food?’” 

Barbara Knight helps run the food pantry at a church in Rosemark, Tennessee. In the Food Bank’s shopping area, she’s picking through the sparse selection of snacks and cereals. “We have 40 families who come to the pantry once a month,” she says. “Most are not eligible for public assistance. We’ve got canned goods but we haven’t had meat in about three months. It’s definitely a tough situation.”

Mayhue-Greer calls it “a transformational stage” for this 30-year-old agency. “We’re having to be forward-thinkers. We not only have to adjust, but make creative changes, so we can keep serving the people who need it most.”

Number One in “Hunger Hardship”

Launched by the Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association (MIFA) in 1981, the Mid-South Food Bank has been an independent nonprofit since 1988, and is a member of Feeding America, the national food bank network. Its fight to end hunger covers 31 counties — 12 in Tennessee, 18 in Mississippi, and one in Arkansas — and serves agencies that include not only soup kitchens and food pantries but also shelters, youth and senior programs, and rehabilitation centers.

Its largest service is distributing food through partner agencies, primarily food pantries (see sidebar, p. 35). In 2010, 7 million pounds of food and groceries were distributed through these pantries. And with good reason: A survey taken in 2010, by the Gallup Organization for the Food Resource Action Center, found that the eight-county Memphis metropolitan area ranked number one in the nation for “hunger hardship,” with 26 percent of the population reporting uncertainty about having food to eat in the last year.

For years the Food Bank has depended on donors such as food manufacturers, wholesalers, brokers, and retailers, and it still receives donations from these sources. But times are changing. Companies are scrutinizing their bottom line and altering how they do business. “They’re manufacturing the product when companies place orders,” says Mayhue-Greer. “That way they don’t have the surplus they used to have. Also, companies are looking at other revenue streams and selling surplus to be used in other ways. That decreased amount of surplus goods is one of the biggest hits we’ve taken. The shopping list we’d send to agencies of available foods used to be six pages long. Now we’re lucky if it’s two pages.”

Another blow comes from state government. “We used to be in the budget,” says Mayhue-Greer. “This year we got nothing. Also last year we were able to buy a lot of food with stimulus funds passed to the state from the federal government. That’s gone too. We’re advocating with elected officials, asking them not to cut these programs. I’m working [with the agriculture department] to see if we can distribute more USDA products. We think we have a better handle on where the pockets of need are.”

A Little Righteous Anger

Although the Food Bank has always purchased some of its food, that amount has more than doubled in recent years, “Last year, 25 percent of what we distributed was product we purchased,” says Mayhue-Greer. “This year we expect [the final figure] to be lots more.”

She doesn’t fault companies for being fiscally conservative, and she praises several for their partnership. “We’re required to get three bids for anything we purchase, so we’ll make a list of what we need and send that list to brokers throughout the country,” she says. “Kroger is one we send bids to, and earlier this year after the flood, we were really low on supplies. Not only did Kroger have the lowest bid, but they also donated money to us that we could apply to our part of the purchase.”

Some situations, however, stir a little righteous anger. “I got a call last month from multiple brokers,” says Mayhue-Greer. “They had four truckloads of green beans they were trying to sell at the best price. Each broker had access to it. One offered to sell it to me for $4.50 per case, another one for $7.50 per case. I got upset with the one at the high end. I told him, ‘You need to be donating this.’ Not long ago, it would have been donated. That really ticked me off.”

“One Dollar Becomes Four for us in Buying Power.”

But, as need increases and food decreases, the Food Bank is making adjustments. One is how it administers its Operation Feed Program, an annual workplace food drive that raised $440,000 last year. “We used to encourage company participants to get the food for us,” says Mayhue-Greer. “But we saw what we could do for one dollar — and one dollar becomes four for us in buying power. So asking companies to raise money instead of buying food makes a lot more sense for us. We can purchase by the truckload. We also put our buying power with other food banks across the country and through Feeding America, so we can get better deals. “

Another program is helping build the Food Bank’s meat inventory, as well as adding to the warehouse several protein products — such as eggs, cheese, milk, and bakery goods — that the organization doesn’t often have on hand. “We’re able to go to Kroger, Walmart, and Target and pick up items before their sell-by dates and get them to our freezer,” says Mayhue-Greer. “That extends the life of the products.”

The distribution process itself starts every Wednesday, when the Food Bank posts on its website a shopping list of available items. “Agencies can make an order of 10 cases or more, then schedule a pickup from the warehouse,” says Mayhue-Greer. “If they order less than 10 cases, they come to our shopping area and buy anything there that they haven’t already got through the warehouse. Our system lets us know who has bought what and how frequently they’re serving, and that discourages anyone from stockpiling items.” 

For the food, clients pay only a small handling fee — 14 cents a pound. And that’s quite a bargain: “We pay $28 for a case of tuna,” says Mayhue-Greer. “Our agencies get that for $3.78 a case.”

“Feed the Need is Huge for Us.”

Even with the shortage, the Food Bank insists on distributing nutritious food. “When you’re dubbed the most obese city, you have to think about that. We don’t want to add to the problems,” says Mayhue-Greer. “In the Mobile Pantry — which distributes primarily in rural areas — we’re partnering with the extension services to develop healthy recipes that we can deliver.” The Kids Cafes, which provide free hot meals twice a week, and the Backpack program, which sends kids home with food for the weekend, are also designed to promote healthy eating. “The Backpack program started out not so nutritious,” says Mayhue-Greer. “Now ours is stronger than other food banks. It includes several complete meals.”

Though the Food Bank lost funding for Kids Cafes at the $12,000 a year level, “we’re committed to that program,” says Mayhue-Greer. “So we’re looking at a more flexible sponsorship — asking companies and organizations to sponsor the meals for a month at $1,000, as well as provide the volunteers to prepare and serve. We’re finding ways to be creative.”

Still, the organization depends on several funding sources, among them Feed the Need, which allows grocery-store shoppers to donate through card scanners. She smiles recalling how Schnucks — which left Memphis and sold its stores to Kroger — reacted to that program. “When Schnucks first came here they took all the scan cards down, saying they cluttered up the check-out line. But customers complained so much to the Schnucks national office that an official called Memphis and said, ‘I don’t know what this Feed the Need thing is but get it back up!’ It’s huge for us,” says Mayhue-Greer. “Three percent of our total budget.”

“Tears Started Flowing . . .”

Also vital to the Food Bank are grants from various corporations and fundraisers. One, which came from American Idol Gives Back, provided funds to hire food solicitor Bob Fritchey. Since he joined the Food Bank in June he has brought in such large donors as Target as well as other new and lapsed donors. 

Smaller businesses make an impact as well. Among these are Gigi’s Cupcakes, now with three stores in Memphis. Franchise owners Blake and Marilyn Weber knew when they opened the first store in January 2010 that they “had an opportunity to make a difference,” says Marilyn. “I’ve always been driven by feeding people. And I especially wanted to help those I knew would never be able to come to our stores. So we decided from the beginning that we would set aside a portion of our sales in what we call a ‘sweet outpouring.’” The Webers researched several organizations and decided that “the Food Bank was everything we were looking for. They know the value of a dollar and how to feed people.” 

Mayhue-Greer says the Webers called and wanted to come by and bring their daughters. “They said they had a check for us,” she recalls. While there in her office, they were reading handwritten notes from food recipients — which were mailed to national senators and representatives — expressing their appreciation for the Food Bank. Expecting perhaps $1,000, Mayhue-Greer was amazed when she saw the amount of that “sweet outpouring” — $20,000.

“I did a doubletake,” she recalls, “and tears started flowing down my face. When I found some Kleenex, the husband, who was moved by the notes he was reading, said, ‘You better pass those around the room.’” 

And who could blame him. Sample comments include these from several West Tennessee recipients:

I don’t get food stamps because I receive $11 too much income. I can’t feed myself and my great-grandson for $11.

I am disabled with a 16-year-old son. They say I make too much money to get food stamps. I get $1,000 a month.

I am so blessed by the Food Bank I cry at times. 

“I Understand Food Insecurity.”

Contributions, whether large or small, demonstrate to Mayhue-Greer that individuals and companies understand the challenge she and her colleagues face. But it’s a challenge she knows she’s prepared to meet. 

“I understand food insecurity,” she says. “There were times when my mother [did without] and watched us eat because there wasn’t enough food.” And from every job — even her first at a hot-dog stand where she acquired basic training in food safety — she garnered experience that guides her today. Perhaps most important is the wisdom of “involving all stakeholders” in the community effort of curbing hunger. “When I came to the Food Bank, I knew this was where I could use everything I had learned to help others. I really believe that all along God was preparing me for this.” 

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