In 2009 I received a call from the Edwards Street Fellowship Center— a mission pantry that was helping feed 800 families a month— in my hometown of Hattiesburg, Mississippi. They had completely exhausted their food inventory and desperately needed help to make sure that they could supply their clients who would be showing up in a few days.
Being a 30-year veteran of the restaurant industry, I figured the fastest, easiest way to get food to the pantry would be to call my Sysco sales representative, place an order, and have the truck drop-ship the order at the agency’s doorstep the next day.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t easy at all. Even though Sysco is the world’s largest foodservice distributor, many of the items in their warehouse and database are large, institutional-sized grocery products. A food pantry that is giving their clients a box of dry goods to take home to prepare a hot meal for their family has no use for a 50-pound bag of rice or a six-pound can of tuna.
It took a few days to comb through the 15,000 food items in the Sysco catalogue, but I finally put together an order and had it shipped to the pantry just in time to make sure that the clients who were depending on Edwards Street to feed their families got the food they needed.
Afterward I wondered if other agencies throughout Mississippi, who were responsible for feeding those in need, were having similar problems.
To be completely honest, I was skeptical that there was a need, and wondered if we actually had a hunger problem at all. I had no difficulty believing that there were hunger issues in third-world nations halfway across the globe, but here in the United States, the richest, most prosperous country on the planet? No way. We have food stamps, WIC, welfare, and several other government assistance programs for those in need. The deeper I dug the more I learned how wrong I was. Unfortunately, I was actually living in the state that had the most food insecurity in the nation.
As I travelled to other agencies similar to Edwards Street, I began to see the face of hunger in my state. I learned that there are seniors living on Social Security checks and fixed incomes who are— at this very moment— trying to decide between paying the electricity bill or going to the grocery store to purchase food. I met single, working mothers who were holding down two jobs trying to keep their children fed. Worst of all, I met children who were eating a school breakfast, a school lunch, and not eating again until the next day.
I had trouble reconciling that Mississippi was the fattest state in the nation and also the most food insecure. How could that be? On my tour I learned that the two— hunger and obesity— almost always go hand in hand. If one doesn’t have enough money to purchase proper foods at a grocery store, he or she will go to the nearest convenience store and eat junk.
There was a problem— a huge problem. I approached the executive team at Sysco and proposed a question: “What if every business and home had an extra table where they could feed those in need? What would that look like?” They loved the idea, and Extra Table was born.
I took the original order I sent Edwards Street and expanded it into three, easy-to-order food bundles so that no one would need to spend two days putting together a shipment.
There were two original principles that I knew Extra Table needed to follow:
- The food must be healthy.
- When someone donated food, 100% of that donation needed to go to purchase food.
While traveling to various soup kitchens and mission pantries I learned that many of the clients wanted mac and cheese, but what was needed to live a healthy lifestyle were low-fat proteins, low-sugar fruits and healthy grains. The Extra Table food bundles had to contain those healthy foods.
In June of 2012, using a small grant given to Extra Table by Bill Ray and the Asbury Foundation, I made one of the wisest decisions of my business career and hired Raven Tynes as Extra Table’s executive director. Raven— a young, dynamic woman with a burning-to-the-core desire to help feed those in need— had been working in a secure-for-life federal government position. She took a 50% pay cut, set up a desk in a spare corner of my restaurant office, and hit the ground running.
Today the Edwards Street Fellowship Center feeds over 1,200 families per month. Extra Table is shipping healthy foods to agencies— not by the pound, but— by the ton.
We host a couple of fundraisers each year to help cover our minimal administrative costs so that 100% of what our partners donate goes to purchase healthy food at wholesale prices.
After three decades in the restaurant industry, I asked myself a question: “At the end of the day, do I want to be the guy who fed people filet mignon, or do I want to be the guy who fed people canned tuna?” It’s an easy answer. Canned tuna wins every time.
At Extra Table, our mission is to solve hunger. We take that challenge seriously, and— thanks to concerned citizens like you— we are meeting it head on.
-Robert St. John, Founder