In a year in which it seems the headlines are filled with endless negative and controversial news stories, I thought it might be a nice break in the action to report on a few positive activities that occurred in 2020.
Extra Table is a feeding charity that I founded in 2009. We supply healthy food to mission pantries and soup kitchens all across the state. Beginnings don’t get humbler than the early days of Extra Table. It all started with a phone call from one local mission pantry that was feeding 800 families a month. They were completely out of food and called me to see if there was any way I could help them stock the shelves.
Out of that one phone call, an idea was born based on the premise— what if every business and home had an extra table where they could feed those in need. To be honest with you though, I wasn’t even sure if there was a hunger problem in Mississippi. So, I went on a fact-finding mission visiting soup kitchens and mission pantries across the state and it didn’t take long to learn that there is a huge hunger problem in Mississippi.
What I learned is that almost 25% of the state suffers from what the government calls “food insecurity.” In Mississippi, a quarter of the state’s children eat a school breakfast and a school lunch and then don’t eat again until the next day. There are also over 100,000 seniors who— at this very moment— are trying to figure out whether they can pay the light bill or go to the grocery store. The problem is real, and the problem is serious.
It’s not that Mississippi didn’t have enough agencies to feed those in need. Mississippi is blessed to have many agencies on the front lines of hunger, and they are all staffed by dedicated people and hundreds of volunteers. The problem is that the agencies couldn’t keep food on the shelves to keep up with the demand.
Extra Table’s initial working model was based on my experience in the restaurant world. In the early days, we used the purchasing power of foodservice distributors, and their distribution capabilities, to send food directly to Mississippi’s feeding agencies. Over time Extra Table’s business model changed to where we often cut out the middleman these days and— along with our partners at CHOW Purchasing— acquire food directly from growers, canners, and suppliers and deliver it ourselves. By doing that we increased our effectiveness tremendously.
I could teach a master class on how to start and grow a nonprofit. Though most of the class would be spent on how hard it is in the early years to gain footing and become effective. Growing a 501c3 is a very slow and arduous process. Around our 8th year, we started seeing major growth. But in our 11th year, and in the middle of a global pandemic, we hit our stride.
The timing has to have been a God thing. When Mississippians needed food the most Extra Table was set up and ready to deliver it to them. By almost all accounts, 2020 was a terrible year on almost every front, but when it comes to food insecurity, and feeding Mississippians in need, Extra Table saw unprecedented growth and success.
From day one of opening my first restaurant in 1987, I have always believed in one core principle— always give credit where credit is due. A major part of Extra Table’s unprecedented success in 2020 should be credited to our volunteers, donors, and partners. But it takes leadership to accomplish great things, and for the last three years, Extra Table has been led by an amazing woman who possesses the perfect skill set for a non-profit executive director— endless energy, total passion and commitment for the cause, the ability to communicate the need to others, prodigious team building, and the dedication to work tirelessly for those in need. That person is Martha Allen, and for more than half of 2020 she ran a statewide profit as the lone employee. It wasn’t until late summer that she added a second employee (keep that in mind while reading the following paragraph).
The charitable feeding community measures food distribution and effectiveness in pounds. In 2019— our most effective year to date— Extra Table distributed 268,000 pounds of food. In 2020, working under the adverse conditions of a global pandemic, Extra Table’s Martha Allen, her staff of one, and hundreds of dedicated volunteers distributed over 1,200,000 pounds of food to Mississippians in need. That’s more than a 400% increase over the previous year. And if a 400% increase wasn’t impressive enough, we also partnered with Borden dairy and distributed over half of a million gallons of milk— that’s an additional 4,700,000 pounds to those in the charitable feeding community— to agencies and citizens from North Mississippi to the Gulf Coast (a more than 2,200% increase).
Extra Table started the year by delivering healthy food to 39 agencies in 32 counties. We ended 2020 by partnering with 62 feeding agencies in 49 Mississippi counties.
One of the things I am most proud of when it comes to Extra Table is that two of our core principles from day one have been that 100% of the money we raise for food is used to purchase food (We started an entirely new 501c3 to raise money for our minimal administrative costs so we can always stay true to that mission). Secondly, the food we purchase will always be healthy food. The Extra Table model is unique. We operate on a shoestring out of a borrowed corner of my business office. There may be another statewide non-profit that operates with only two paid staff, but I would bet several paychecks that you couldn’t find one that is as effective.
In 2020, Extra Table executive director, Martha Allen, director of development, Rhonda Hayden, CHOW Purchasing, and hundreds of volunteers delivered, 25,000 pounds of Mississippi Gulf shrimp, 35,000 pounds of rice, grits, and beans, 95,000 pounds of chicken, 160,000 pounds of potatoes, 550,000 gallons of milk, and 840,000 eggs to Mississippians in need.
Extra Table has gone from a steady crawl to an all-out sprint, but we are just getting started in Mississippi’s hunger battle. The future is bright as one of our main initiatives in 2021 will be reimagining the old and outdated canned food drive model. We took the first steps of that this year with our new box project in which we began distributing boxes of healthy food to those in need. For more information on that effort, and how you can be a part of one of Mississippi’s fastest-growing and most effective non-profits, go to extratable.org for more information.
–Robert St. John