Extra Table is all about fighting food insecurity in Mississippi by stocking food pantries across the state with healthy foods. Martha Allen, whose career has primarily been in the non-profit realm, took over as executive director of Extra Table in March 2018. Allen recently spoke with Sun Staff Writer Nikki Rowell about the mission of Extra Table, and how the organization has been impacted in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
What is the mission of Extra Table?
“Extra Table is the amazing partnership launched by well-known restaurateur Robert St. John, in 2009, making a difference in the lives of Mississippians by fundraising in order to stock food pantries and soup kitchens across the state with wholesome nutritious food.”
When did you become the executive director? What do you do in this role?
“March of 2018. I’ve been here a little over two and a half years, and on a daily basis I’m communicating with our food pantries and fundraising daily. We strictly fundraise in order to purchase new and healthy foods that we distribute monthly to our food pantries and soup kitchens throughout the state of Mississippi. Our goal is to fight hunger and obesity hand-in-hand, since Mississippi is at the top of both of those lists. We can make a difference when fighting those systematically and together.
Our food is always shelf stable, so low sodium soups, low sodium vegetables, fruit in 100 percent juice, lots of lean protein like tuna, beans, peanut butter and great whole grains, like oatmeal, granola bars, grits, pasta and rice.”
Since Mississippi has a problem with food insecurity and, in turn, obesity, can you talk a bit about the importance of not only getting food to the hungry in Mississippi, but how Extra Table goes a step further to ensure that the food is healthy?
“When Robert St. John formed Extra Table in 2009, he founded it on two principles, that when we fundraise for food, all the money goes to food. Our administrative costs are raised separately. The second principle is that 100 percent of our food is always going to be healthy. So, we ship food that is not processed.
We know that there are so many people in Mississippi with high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease. When they don’t have a choice of where to go for food, we want our food to offer hope and be respectful and to support whatever health concern they’re dealing with. So, when a lady enters the pantry with high blood pressure or diabetes, we want our food to help her condition, not harm her condition or add to it.
We know that in a rural state like Mississippi, access to grocery stores is tough with the average distance to a grocery store being 30 miles in many places. So, food accessibility and affordability is critical. It’s definitely easier to run through a drive-through versus having food at home to prepare.”
Can you walk me through how the process works as far as how Extra Table facilitates getting the food and getting it to these facilities?
“Yes, it’s four easy steps. Step one, we fundraise. Step two, we purchase. Step three, we distribute to food pantries and soup kitchens. And step four, people are fed. It seems like a difficult concept, but it’s based on a really simple idea that is extremely efficient and effective, allowing us to get the best quality foods to the most people. We don’t participate in canned food drives. We strictly fundraise in order to buy food.
We’re really excited that throughout COVID our support has gone up and our reach has broadened. We are now able to say that $1 feeds 5.9 healthy meals.”
What are some of the organizations Extra Table works with in the Jackson metro?
“Working Together Jackson, Good Samaritan, MadCAAP, StewPot, Midtown Partners, Central United Methodist Church, Operation Upward, the Boys and Girls Club, Spring Forth Opportunity, Grace House and Galloway Mission are just to name a few.”
How many people benefit from this each year?
“Over 500,000 meals are provided annually.”
How badly is Mississippi affected by food insecurity?
“There are 680,000 Mississippians that struggle with hunger, so one in five Mississippians. Those numbers are prior to COVID-19.”
Has COVID-19 had an impact on Extra Table, as far as leading to more people needing its services?
“We are seeing a 30 to 50 percent increase in requests for food at our food pantries and soup kitchens. Immediately when COVID hit and grocery store shelves became scarce and food became a little more expensive, we realized that we had to evaluate our process in order to ensure that food would be coming in the future months. We kind of went back to the drawing board and had a whole new way of purchasing and shipping our food. We’re saving an additional 30 percent. In the face of a global pandemic, we’ve learned lessons and improved our system that was already efficient and effective.
We are excited about that. We have partnered with Good Sam in Jackson and got the hub for the hungry, where we have been rescuing food and putting it on refrigerated and freezer trucks there so that we can distribute it to our partners as the need arises or as they’re able to come get it so that food doesn’t go to waste. Our goal is to have zero food go to waste on our watch. We’ve partnered with farmers like Two Brooks Rice, so we have Mississippi-grown rice that we are distributing to our food pantries and soup kitchens.
We have an apartment complex, Heritage Properties in Hattiesburg, that is renovating and donating their freezers and refrigerators to us to distribute to our food pantries and soup kitchens. We’re working with a group of fishermen on the Mississippi Gulf Coast to get another source of great protein out to our pantries and soup kitchens. We’ve been working with the Community Foundation for Mississippi and the Community Foundation for Washington County, both through grants and food box programs, in order to provide more food for Mississippians.
And we were so grateful for the businesses in the Jackson metro and the Junior League ladies for their support in our COVID efforts and fighting hunger.”
What about on the fundraising side? Have you guys had to cancel fundraising events? If so, how have you been able to bridge the gap in donations?
“Yes. Within the first month, we lost anywhere from $75,000 to $100,000 in events. The spring is a busy time for all nonprofits. As the fall ramps back up, we have had to cancel many things and transfer them and learn how they translate into virtual events or drive through, contactless events. It is a daily learning curve. We’re working really hard, and we are so grateful that our donors believe in the work we do and believe in telling the Extra Table story. We’re blessed and know we are going to be able to continue feeding people during this pandemic.
In the face of a global pandemic, not only have we been able to provide better food, but more food to each of our food pantries. In the height of the pandemic, we were providing food weekly, and we have gone back to monthly now. But it is a much, much larger load. We are thrilled.”
Does Extra Table rely more on individual donations or businesses?
“It is a 50/50 mix. It is a beautiful mix of businesses and individuals that are passionate and know that nutrition is so valuable at all stages of our lives, that if children don’t have good nutrition in early childhood development we know their brain doesn’t fully develop and that is not something that they can catch back up on. We know for students in the classroom that if they’re hungry they’re not paying attention and they’re not listening. Further up, we know hunger is a huge problem on college campuses. Then, for adults, it is difficult for adults to maintain a job and maintain safety and continue to report to work day after day if they are extremely food insecure or struggling with hunger.
Extra Table is proud to be a partner that helps put food on the table in homes throughout Mississippi. It’s healthy food. It’s the same stuff our donors would want to go home at night and eat. We provide new, shelf-stable food all over the state of Mississippi.”
If someone would like to donate or learn more about Extra Table, what would be the best way to do that?
“Through our website at extratable.org. Follow us on social media to keep up with everything that we’re doing and everywhere that we are feeding.”