Feeding Mississippi: Mississippi Food Network

eat.drink.Mississippi DecJan 2011eat. drink. Mississippi
December 2011/January 2012
Article and photos

There is no other time of year more closely associated with food than the holidays. Magazines dedicate entire issues to preparing the perfect holiday feast while fitness gurus preach about how to avoid the inevitable weight gain. However, for almost 600,000 Mississippians that live below the poverty level, a festive and food-filled holiday season seems more like an unattainable dream rather than a reality.

For over 27 years, the Mississippi Food Network (MFN) has been providing food and personal items to families in need all across the state. But what exactly does the face of hunger look like? Many may assume it only includes the homeless. However, hunger can affect working families that either don’t bring in enough income to meet their day-to-day needs or are hit with an unexpected expense that puts a strain on their finances. This means single parents or senior citizens who must choose between paying for a doctor’s visit or buying groceries. It also includes over 211,000 children that don’t receive enough food to meet their daily nutritional requirements.

“Ninety-seven percent of what we raise goes into funding programs to feed hungry people,” says Marilyn Blackledge, Director of External Affairs at MFN. “We try to utilize volunteers as much as we can to keep administrative costs down, in addition to holding food drives and purchasing items in bulk to receive discounts.”

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From its humble beginnings in 1983 in a 4,000 square foot converted church and abandoned fire station, the organization has grown to include 80,000 square feet of storage and office space, including its main warehouse in Jackson and a distribution center in Brookhaven. Throughout the year, MFN raises funds and stocks their shelves in a variety of ways. At the community level, the organization works with local companies to sponsor food drives in addition to raising money through individual donors, grants, and corporate sponsors.

As an affiliate member of Feeding America, the nation’s leading domestic hunger-relief charity and food bank network, MFN receives both food and monetary donations from several major corporations and retailers. In September, MFN was one of three food banks in the United States to win 30,000 pounds of chicken from Tyson Foods through a Facebook challenge in honor of Hunger Action Month.

“This will provide 120,000 servings of protein for us to distribute to our member agencies,” says Blackledge. “It is great to get a truckload of protein donated because we typically purchase staple food items with the funds we raise because they go further and are more affordable for us to purchase.”

Much of the food MFN takes in is distributed to over 320 outreach agencies across the state, including food pantries, shelters, soup kitchens, and Boys & Girls Clubs.

“There are a lot of children in Mississippi who the only meal they eat for the day is what they are served in school,” adds Blackledge. The organization feeds around 450 children through their Backpack Program, which provides backpacks full of non-perishable items for these children to take home to eat on the weekend. It also supplies healthy snacks such as fruit, milk, and peanut butter crackers to Boys & Girls Clubs throughout the Delta, in addition to breakfast and lunch via summer feeding sites and other afterschool programs around the state.

During the holidays, the organization does see an increase in need. All member agencies pack holiday packages for their clients and rely heavily on food drives to meet the demand.

“There are three ways people can help – donate money, donate food, or volunteer,” says Blackledge. “With the funds we raise, we purchase truckloads of food at wholesale cost, meaning every dollar we raise can provide seven meals. This is the best way for people to help us because we can stretch those dollars into more food. However, we always welcome groups or companies to conduct food drives for us. We get a lot of quality product that way.”

For individuals interested in donating their time, MFN hosts regular volunteer days on the second Saturday of every month from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. at their main warehouse in Jackson. Groups or individuals interested in helping during the week are encouraged to call and schedule a time.

“Donations during the holidays are important. However, the demand for our services is year round,” adds Blackledge. “Our member agencies are serving more than 120,000 people each month and this number continues to grow.”

The Mississippi Food Network
440 W. Beatty Street
Jackson, MS 39201