In 2009, Mississippi restaurateur and businessman Robert St. John got a phone call from Edwards Street Fellowship Center. The Hattiesburg-based nonprofit’s food pantry was empty, with hundreds of families set to arrive to pick up food in the coming days, and they needed help. “At the time, they were feeding 800 families a month, and they didn’t have food on the shelves,” Robert St. John said. “Being a thirty-year veteran of the restaurant business, my first thought was to call my Sysco representative, place an order, and have them drop it at the fellowship center. It got their within a couple of days, and it fed their clients.”
With that first delivery, a new organization was born. Called Extra Table, St. John named the nonprofit based on a lingering question he had after working with Edwards Street. “After that experience, I asked myself, ‘What if every business and every person in Mississippi had an extra table where they could help those in need? What would that look like?’” he said.
In order to make that vision a reality, St. John partnered with Sysco and developed a menu of healthy items that Extra Table could purchase at cost. “I asked them for two things, which was to give me healthy food at rock bottom prices and to deliver the food directly to various agencies, and they agreed. I knew Sysco had the trucking and the purchasing power, so we piggy-backed on that,” he said.
St. John began traveling across Mississippi, visiting soup pantries and kitchens. He asked organizations if they ever ran out of food, and he met with clients and heard their stories. “I thought hunger was a problem in other countries and not in the United States, and certainly not in my community. My eyes were opened quickly. I realized that hundreds of thousands of Mississippians go hungry every day, many of them children and seniors,” he said.
Mississippi holds the dubious distinction of ranking first nationally in rates of obesity and food insecurity, something executive director, Martha Allen, describes as the product of food deserts in certain regions and the lack of access to nutritious food across the state. “In Mississippi, childhood hunger can look like obesity, because we have children in after-school programs who don’t know when they will eat again on a Friday afternoon, and they eat everything in sight. They’ll have Mountain Dew and Doritos, and they may not eat again until Monday,” she said.
Many Mississippians, regardless of age, live in rural areas without easy access to healthy food. “Many people end up living out of gas stations and convenience stories and making unhealthy choices,” St. John said. “We combat that by making sure all the food that we supply is healthy.”
Extra Table orders contain shelf-stable options like canned tuna and chicken, beans and other vegetables, peanut butter, brown rice, soy milk, granola bars, and cereal. “We want low fat, low sugar, high protein items, because we know that health issues like diabetes and heart disease also go hand-in-hand with food insecurity,” St. John said.
Sysco partners with Extra Table’s work through their Nourishing Neighbors program, which the company designed to support organizations working to eliminate hunger. “We know the commitment to ending hunger is a mutual mission with a partner like Extra Table,” said Sysco’s Marketing Manager, Katherine Capocelli. “Food is a necessity, not a privilege.”
“When Robert came to us with this idea, we thought, ‘Hey, we are a food company, so this makes total sense,’” said Hays Vaughan, Director of Business Resources at Sysco. “It has grown ever since and feeds into our own efforts to fight hunger.”
In addition to their corporate partnership, another unique element within Extra Table’s model is how they fund their efforts. It’s called the one hundred percent promise. One hundred percent of donations go to purchase food, and all the food purchased is healthy. “Our slogan is Neighbors Feeding Neighbors because your dollars make a difference right in your own neighborhood,” Allen said. “If you donate in Pearl, that money goes to support a feeding organization in Pearl, and you are literally feeding your neighbors in the most efficient and effective way possible. We use completely separate fund-raisers to cover our administrative costs.”
Since Extra Table’s founding, the organization has steadily grown, initially serving only the Edwards Street Fellowship Center and now delivering food to more than thirty-five food pantries and soup kitchens across the state. They encourage those interested in supporting their efforts in fighting hunger to donate. “Donating five dollars to Extra Table is the equivalent of ten dollars you might spend at the grocery store due to our bulk purchasing power,” Allen said. “Food pantries and soup kitchens need canned food drives and other sources of food to survive, but the pantries get super excited when the Sysco trucks drop off their Extra Table order. The excitement comes from knowing the order includes the staple food items that really make a full meal and don’t typically get donated—your peanut butter, soups, canned tuna, rice and beans, etc.”
None of the food pantries with whom Extra Table partners spend any money. “At first, they’re usually suspicious when we offer to start supplying food, like, ‘What’s the catch?’ but we are just doing what we think we are supposed to be doing,” St. John said. “We’ve been growing quickly, at a rate of about 50 percent a year, and we’re delivering more than 14 tons of food a month right now. There are a lot of people in Mississippi who want to help get food to those in need,” he said.
Those interested in lending a hand may sign up for the Extra Table newsletter. Go to www.extratable.org/donate to become a monthly donor or learn more about the organization.