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Fighting hunger in West Tennessee

By Matar Gaye

AmeriCorps VISTA Alumnus

Editor’s note: This is the second of a series of pieces that will run ahead of United Way’s upcoming conference that looks at the segment of the community in Jackson and West Tennessee, known as ALICE, who are working but struggle to afford basic expenses. The ALICE Conference will be Thursday, Nov. 9 from 8 a.m.-3:30 p.m. at the West TN AgResearch and Education Center on Airways Boulevard.

In October 2022, I embarked on a year-long journey for which I was not prepared. After spending almost 20 years in education, I accepted to join AmeriCorps as a VISTA volunteer working for United Way in West TN. I soon learned that West TN was among those parts of America where food insecurity and child food insecurity are most prevalent. According to the Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed (ALICE) Report, 44% of households in Tennessee are below the ALICE threshold, which means they don’t make enough money to operate a stable household budget. ALICE reflects those income earners who are the backbone of America but earn just a little bit over the federal poverty line, and therefore do not qualify for most federal assistance programs.

In Hardeman County, out of 9,000 households, 57% are below the ALICE threshold. In Madison County, 45% of more than 39,000 households are below the ALICE line. Again, those households are where our essential workers such as our drivers, stockers and order fillers, customer service representative, office clerks, and fast food workers call home.

As the ALICE report stressed “These workers often struggle to keep their own households from financial ruin, while keeping our local community running.” I found that financial precarity often goes hand to hand with child food insecurity which is also prevalent here in West TN. The US Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as “a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life” Those children live in our neighborhoods, run around our schoolyards, and play in our parks. They are invisible to so many, and too often go to bed without a decent dinner.

The focus of my work with United Way was to understand food insecurity in our area and how to better assist the heroic local food providers who are fighting hunger and food precarity on a daily basis. As an educator, I certainly dealt with students and parents who were struggling to make a decent living, with many students coming from underserved communities across the United States. However, I could not imagine how extensive hunger and food insecurity were here in Jackson, as well as in surrounding cities and counties. I vividly remember the conversations that I had with food providers across several counties.

On a morning in December 2022, I had the pleasure to spend some time with the dedicated and humble people who manage Reelfoot Ministry. After visiting the food pantry and other facilities I had a conversation with Robert Craig, Executive Director of the Ministry. I was moved by the dedication of his personnel as well as how nonjudgmental they were; eager to help every person who would call or appear at their doorstep. In addition to making a big difference in fighting food insecurity with free grocery distribution, Reelfoot Ministry is also operating a dental and vision clinic staffed by volunteer qualified medical personnel.

That same day I also visited the Salvation Army soup kitchen operating in Dyer County. I was stunned to find out that almost the entire staff was composed of unpaid volunteers. They each spend several hours each day serving hot meals to people who rely on them to have at least one full meal. I can still recall the humble statement Lisa Chesney, their Salvation Army manager, made during our conversation. As she sat in her wheelchair, she said, “My biggest fear is not having enough food…Enough to serve our customers who come to our soup kitchen (and depend on us) every day.”

And Patricia Ward, the Executive Director of The Milan Mustard Seed, is also leading incredible work. Almost 30,000 meal packages were served at their location in 2022 with a total of 410,579 lbs. of food. Not only that, but knowing that hunger and food insecurity are part of the poverty and income inequality equation, The Milan Mustard Seed also assisted more than 400 families with Utility bills and rent assistance in 2022.

On a rainy and cold day in February 2023, I traveled to Martin to meet with Betty Baker, Director of WeCare Ministry. When I pulled into the parking lot, I was impressed by the number of cars lining up to receive weekly boxes of groceries. This faith-based ministry operates without any federal government assistance. Yet, in addition to distributing food to families in the Martin, TN area, Betty and her 16 employees and 54 volunteers are providing backpack lunches to students and also rent and utility assistance to families in need.

While here in Jackson, I was surprised by what I learned from my numerous conversations with Shaun Powers, one of the leaders at the Regional Inter-Faith Association, RIFA. Just in 2022, more than half a million meals were served on 133 Airways Blvd where RIFA’s soup kitchen is located. Operating seven days a week, this location is the life support for thousands of people who are also our neighbors or colleagues at work as well as some veterans of the US Army. In addition to operating the biggest soup kitchen in Jackson, RIFA is also fighting child hunger by operating a bus stop café that gives free meals to about 150 children a day during summer and fall school breaks. And on Friday afternoons, when the dismissal bell rings, some of the students in the JMCSS schools become nervous, not knowing what they will eat during the weekend. Through donations and countless hours of preparation by volunteers, RIFA is helping our school children with a weekly brown bag of food that can be brought home every Friday. RIFA also had a program to assist seniors with the delivery of a fresh produce box twice a month.

But grassroot food provider organizations are facing deep issues to operate. According to Betty Baker from We Care, “Hiring people is almost impossible. We can only pay $9/hour with no benefits while surrounding factories are offering close to$20/hour with benefits. Sometimes our operations are slowed or postponed because of a lack of manpower.” She also stressed the dire issue of transportation for people who are food insecure. “The people who are most likely to experience hunger are also the ones in need of transportation to come to our facilities to get a box of groceries” she added.

Betty, and others like Lisa Tillman and Shaun Powers from RIFA, Patricia Ward from Milan Mustard Seed, Robert Craig from Reelfoot Ministries, and Lisa Chesney from Salvation Army of Dyersburg are the visible faces of hundreds of invisible unsung heroes who every day are keeping West Tennesseans from falling into abject poverty and dire hunger.

Knowing now how pervasive food insecurity is here in West TN, I sadly learned that federal programs, in their often back-and-forth dictation, can have an enormous impact on how families, children, students, seniors, and veterans are protected by safety nets and federal initiatives against poverty. Over the last few days, media outlets have begun to report, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s annual data on poverty, income, and health insurance, that the poverty rate in the U.S. has risen dramatically with the end of pandemic benefits. Child poverty rates almost doubled compared to the last report. The main reason for this dramatic surge in child poverty can be easily explained. In 2021, Congress increased the amount of child tax credits and relaxed eligibility as part of the Pandemic Rescue Plan.  For many families here in West TN, that child tax credit was also a lifeline to help pay for food, rent and utilities. But those supports are now gone.

Fighting Hunger and food security in our own backyard will require that States find ways to bypass the stalemate in Washington. We do not have control of the political yoyo impacting our fight for a better and equal Tennessee, but we can lend our voice to those in need. And you can discover more by attending United Way’s ALICE summit planned for November 9th, at the Ag Center in Jackson, TN. It will be a wonderful place not only to learn more, but also better understand how to get involved and support those fighting poverty and hunger every day in West TN.

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