Fighting the Good (Food) Fight

Local organizations combat food insecurity with nutritious, free options

Photography by Ziggy Mack

The AutoZone Agency Mart inside the Mid-South Food Bank’s new facility at 3865 South Perkins looks like a small grocery store, its shelves lined with everything from boxes of Minute Rice and jars of Justin’s almond butter to Simple Truth Organic salad dressings and massive cans of boiled peanuts and jellied cranberry sauce.

When Mid-Southerners hold food drives at schools or churches, the Food Bank may only get one can of this or one box of that. Sometimes, they even get a bottle of Bloody Mary mix or a few bars of dark chocolate.

Those random items end up at the Agency Mart, which offers nonprofit food pantries the chance to add a few fun surprises to their regular bulk orders of canned goods and fresh produce. Eventually, the Food Bank plans to open the Agency Mart to individuals in the surrounding neighborhood, which is considered a food desert.

“If you had a peanut butter drive and bring in six pallets of peanut butter, we might put that in our bulk options,” says Perre Magness, former board chair of the Food Bank. “But when we get three random cans of boiled peanuts, they would go here. Someone can use those in a soup kitchen for a snack, but it’s not enough for someone to order.”

The Agency Mart, which has grown substantially in size with the Food Bank’s June move to their new 167,000-square-foot facility, is just one of the many ways the Food Bank distributes food to partner organizations in 31 counties in West Tennessee, North Mississippi and Northeastern Arkansas.

“In our region, there are close to 400,000 people who are food insecure,” Magness says. “That’s one in six people in the Mid-South and one in four children. That’s very high, and it’s higher than the national average.”

The federal government’s Healthy People initiative defines food insecurity as “the disruption of food intake or eating patterns because of lack of money and other resources.” Due to the Mid-South’s high level of poverty and income inequality, the Food Bank’s role is crucial in ensuring thousands of people get access to nutritious foods.

“A household with two adults working full-time, minimum-wage jobs is under the federal poverty limit, so they qualify for government food assistance. That’s a $1.47 a person a day. Try making yourself just one meal a day for $1.47. It’s not going to be nutritious,” Magness says. “You can buy a head of cauliflower for $2 or 12 bags of ramen noodles. If you’re feeding a family, what are you going to buy with that $2?”

The Mid-South Food Bank works with multiple partner agencies, including the YMCA of Memphis and the Mid-South and Friends for Life, to distribute food across the region. Additionally, programs like Big Green, which facilitates learning gardens in Shelby County Schools, are helping to ensure that children across the area not only have access to healthy food but also learn how to prepare and enjoy it.

The Mid-South Food Bank

The Mid-South Food Bank has been serving the region for 39 years, and for the last several years, they’ve distributed an average of 16 million pounds of food annually. But thanks to their recent move to the new facility, which is nearly 100,000 square feet larger than the former two warehouses on Dudley Street and Heistan Place combined, they’re hoping to increase that to 25 million pounds annually.

“There’s no limit to the need,” Magness says.

The new $20 million facility not only features an expanded Agency Mart, but it also boasts 11,600 square feet of freezer space and 7,000 square feet of cooler space. The expanded cold storage means the Food Bank can store far more fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as raw meats and dairy products. The Plough Foundation Cool Zone is a massive, walk-in cold storage space, and it’s stocked with pallets and pallets of apples, cabbage, onions and other produce items.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen this many apples,” says Magness.

“This makes me so happy because I would much rather be feeding people apples than Apple Jacks.”

While the Food Bank will always distribute cereals and canned food items, Magness says they’re hoping the ability to store more fresh items will lead to healthier foods going out of the facility and into agency pantries.

“Currently, about 87 percent of what we distribute falls into USDA guidelines for nutritionally valuable food, but we’d like to be at 100 percent, and we’re moving that way. Having this spaces makes that more possible,” she says.

The Food Bank sources food in many ways. Some is donated through local food drives, but the bulk of the food is purchased at discounted prices through wholesalers, grocery stores and farmers. Every dollar donated to the Food Bank can provide three meals to someone in need.

They work with agencies of any size, from large nonprofits to small mom-and-pop food pantries. Participating agencies are mailed a weekly shopping list, and they place orders for bulk items, such as canned goods and meats. Some pick up on-site, but the Food Bank will deliver to organizations for a small fee. They also offer a mobile service where individuals can pick up sorted boxes of food directly from a truck parked in their neighborhood.

Although the Food Bank is ensuring that healthy foods are distributed to people in need, often the recipients of fresh produce don’t know how to prepare it. The new Food Bank facility has a demonstration kitchen, where they’ll soon begin offering classes on how to prepare meals with fresh produce.

“I went to a food pantry with a huge cabbage distribution once, and the younger people were like, ‘This is weird-looking lettuce.’ Not everyone has had that opportunity to cook with fresh produce, so we want to offer classes to show people what to do,” says Magness.

Additionally, the Food Bank runs several programs to feed kids and seniors. Seniors are identified as the fastest-growing group of those dealing with food insecurity, and more than 29 percent of those receiving assistance from the Food Bank’s partner agencies are seniors over age 60. Through the Food Bank’s Senior Nutrition Program, a month of groceries is delivered to the doors of seniors who may not be able to leave their homes due to health issues.

In the Mid-South Food Bank’s service area, 23.3 percent of children are food insecure, according to the latest Map the Meal Gap hunger study. Programs like the Food Bank’s Food for Kids BackPacks offers nutritious foods to kids who don’t typically have access to them.

“We send food home on the weekends for kids who qualify for school lunch,” Magness says. “So many children rely on those free school meals. That’s their main source of nutrition, and they don’t have that on the weekend. It’s also a big problem in the summer, so we do a lot of summer food drives.”

Y on the Fly

While the Food Bank is providing the ingredients to create healthy meals, the YMCA of Memphis and the Mid-South is dishing out prepared meals to “kids who may not know where their next meal is coming from,” says Brian McLaughlin, the regional Y’s senior vice president of operations.

The Y on the Fly program, which brings the YMCA’s services directly into communities, has been around for about three years. One of the program’s primary objectives is providing meal deliveries to apartment communities, at schools after-hours, at community centers and at YMCA facilities. The program provides 6,000 meals a day—dinner and snacks during the school year and breakfast and lunch during the summer—at 150 meal sites.

“In Shelby County Schools, every student qualifies for the reduced meal program, but in other municipalities we serve, like DeSoto County, we have kids who qualify for that and kids who don’t. But we serve every child. If a kid wants a meal, we serve it to them,” McLaughlin says.

Because the program is so vast, McLaughlin says the Y works with numerous partners, including the Mid-South Food Bank, to source food; other partners assist in preparation out of kitchens in high schools and churches. The program is zero waste since leftovers from one location can be served at the next location.

Most days, dishes such as chicken teriyaki with brown rice or Southwest veggie wraps with edamame, are served directly from meal sites, but the Y recently launched a new food truck that makes surprise appearances at various sites.

“With the food truck, kids can have a food experience rather than just being handed food every day,” McLaughlin says.

“They get to pick food off a menu, and we talk about different types of foods. It starts the process of choice, rather than just eating what you’re served.”

The kids actually help the YMCA determine the menus for the truck. McLaughlin says they do “mind mapping” with the kids to determine what they normally eat and what kinds of healthy foods they can easily introduce to the menu.

“Then we can gradually start introducing foods that are healthier. We can’t shock the system with only healthy foods, like hummus and crackers,” he says. “We gradually work them into that, and they eventually make their own menus.”

Kids who haven’t been exposed to healthy foods may be pickier eaters, but McLaughlin says the gradual approach to offering healthier items helps. Recently, he said, a group of kids were offered a side of either mandarin oranges or baked chips, and the oranges “went like crazy over the chips.”

The food truck also has a blender bike, where the pedals power a blender, so kids can create their own smoothies.

Says McLaughlin: “The kids absolutely love it. They’re making a smoothie, and the next thing we know, they’re like, ‘Oh, let’s put kale in here!’”

Big Green

On March 20 of this year, the first day of spring, students from Crosstown High got their first chance to plant tomatoes, kale, herbs and sunflowers in their new Big Green Learning Garden. The ninth graders took turns pouring soil into raised beds and planting seedlings. At the height of summer, the garden was bursting with juicy cherry tomatoes and curly heads of kale.

Big Green is a national nonprofit—founded by The Kitchen/Next Door American Eatery restaurateur Kimbal Musk and The Kitchen chef Hugo Matheson—that works to promote youth wellness by connecting kids to real food. Nationally, they’ve built around 600 learning gardens in schools, with 128 of those in Shelby County Schools.

Marie Dennan is the local program manager for Big Green and works out of the Memphis office.

“Our national goal is to work with schools with a 60 percent or more free or reduced lunch percentage, but in Memphis and Shelby County, that’s 100 percent,” says Dennan. “We will work with any Shelby County School (SCS) or any charter that falls under SCS and wants a garden. They have to apply and identify a garden team made up of teachers, and sometimes parents or community members, who will care for the garden.”

Big Green provides free seedlings based on a planting plan that identifies vegetables and flowers that will grow to fruition during the course of the school year. That way, the students get the satisfaction of harvesting what they plant before winter or summer breaks. However, schools are welcome to plant whatever they want and aren’t restricted to that plan.

In Shelby County, the free seedlings include lettuce, turnips, radishes, carrots, beets, kale, collards, mustard greens, Swiss chard, onions, flowers, herbs, tomatoes, cucumbers, watermelon, basil, sunflowers, sweet potatoes and cowpeas. Those seedlings are procured from two local farmers—Dennis O’Bryan from One Wheel Market Garden and Chris Peterson from the Alpha Omega Veterans Services urban farm.

Last year, students from the 128 gardens at Shelby County Schools harvested 2,000 pounds of food. After harvest, the students have the chance to eat the food in a number of ways.

“The most common consumption would be that teachers harvest with their students, and the students bring the food home. We also have teachers incorporate the food into the classroom,” Dennan says.

Big Green hosts workshops for teachers, where they share produce recipes that don’t involve cooking, making them easy to reproduce in classrooms. Some school cafeterias will use the produce to create healthy snacks for the kids, but Dennan says that’s less common due to restrictions on what schools that meet reduced or free lunch criteria can serve.

“With those schools, every meal served has a dollar value attached, and it has to meet certain nutritional requirements. So bringing produce into that mix can be cumbersome for the cafeteria to figure out,” Dennan says. “That’s something the district needs to work on.”

Many students start out with reservations about eating vegetables, but Dennan says that tends to change by harvest time.

At a recent Big Green pizza cooking demonstration at the Church Health Nutrition Hub, students from Southwind High, Ridgeway High and Soulsville Charter brought peppers and tomatoes (for pizza) and cucumbers and carrots (for salad) from their gardens, and they created their own pizzas.

“At the end of that field trip, [the instructors from Church Health] said they were amazed at how many vegetables the students were loading up on their pizzas,” Dennan said.
“They said they do this pizza class often with different groups, and they have never seen a group put so many vegetables on their pizza.”
Big Green has a goal to build 15 more learning gardens in local schools this school year, and they’re planning to expand their food demonstration workshops so more schools and parents can learn how to use the produce.

Friends for Life

Agencies across the Mid-South provide food to populations with special needs and considerations. One of those is Friends for Life (FFL), which helps prevent the spread of HIV by helping those living with HIV/AIDS live well. Friends for Life’s food pantry program complements its other services, which provide everything from housing to medical access to HIV prevention.

The food pantry serves about 520 clients each month. Any client with an updated Ryan White card can pick up a monthly box of nonperishables, produce and meats. The federal Ryan White HIV/AIDS program provides financial assistance with medical and non-medical services.

“Their Ryan White card has to be updated because, if it’s not, it means they’re not going to the doctor like they’re supposed to.”

“The food is an incentive for going to the doctor,” says FFL nutrition coordinator Cymone Merritt.

Merritt says a monthly pickup contains dry goods, such as canned goods, peanut butter, dry beans and oatmeal; a produce bag with about $25 worth of fresh fruits and vegetables; and a supply of meat.

“In August, that’s a five-pound turkey leg and three pounds of ground beef,” Merritt says. “The meat changes with the season. In July, everybody gets a 15-pound pack of ribs. Around Thanksgiving they’ll get a turkey, and December, they know to look forward to a ham.”

Some of the food is sourced from the Mid-South Food Bank, and other items are purchased from local grocery stores and wholesalers.

“Sometimes there’s one thing in the produce bag, like zucchini, that they don’t normally cook. We might have figs or pistachios. We try to give them new things to try out,” Merritt says. “Everybody loves the greens and yams. And they look forward to the fruit, and that’s the only fresh fruit they may get.”

An on-site dietician provides classes using some of the items, and Merritt says she posts recipes in the pantry each month.

Everyone’s problem

Organizations like Friends for Life, Big Green and the YMCA are just a few examples of the hundreds of nonprofits that provide access to nutritious foods to combat the Mid-South’s massive food insecurity problem. Magness with the Food Bank says anyone in the Mid-South can do their part by volunteering at the Food Bank or holding a food drive at a private or public event. At the end of the day, food insecurity is everyone’s problem, she says.

“You might think hunger happens to other people, but it impacts us all,” Magness says.

“For example, someone experiencing food insecurity may develop health problems due to their lack of nutrition. And then they can’t work because of those health problems, and that, in turn, affects our economy.”

Bianca Phillips writes about vegan food (and shares images of everything she eats) on her blog, Vegan Crunk. She’s the author of Cookin’ Crunk: Eatin’ Vegan in the Dirty South. By day, she works as the communications coordinator for Crosstown Arts/Crosstown Concourse. She and her partner, Paul, are the proud parents of five cats and one very stubborn (but adorable) pit bull. @biancaphillips

Ziggy Mack is an internationally published photographer about town. When not immortalizing the movements of ballerinas, circus performers and mermaids, he spends his time finding candid moments involving delectable cuisines and the people that create them. @fomoloop