Extension collaboration supports food pantry
LAMBERT, Miss. -- Ask anybody in Quitman County, and they will describe the food pantry that opened there in 2014 as one of the rural town’s most important resources.
“Sometimes after my husband and I pay our bills, we don’t have enough money to buy enough food for us,” said Archie Bell, a longtime resident of Lambert, one of several communities in the area served by the pantry. “The food we get here is a blessing because sometimes, it’s what gets us by.”
The Mississippi State University Extension Service Quitman County office is instrumental in running the pantry at the rural Delta town’s community center, which is provided by the Delta Mission Outreach Ministry and Alliance. Extension works with the Mid-South Food Bank, the Mississippi Food Network and the Quitman County Veterans Service to provide food for about 800 underserved local families every other month.
Extension program assistant Angie Crawford said more than 100 new families apply for service at the pantry each year.
“A volunteer’s husband built the shelf we use to hold the boxes. At first it was one level, and then we had to add another level and then expand into another room,” Crawford said. “The center wasn’t used a lot until the food pantry program started. Once people got used to going there, they started having more activities to bring community members together.”
During each distribution day, Crawford and Extension agent Mari Alyce Earnest deliver nutrition education programs at the community center. They show recipients how to make healthy, nutritionally balanced dishes on a budget.
“Many of the people who benefit from this are senior citizens who worked many years in jobs that did not offer retirement benefits and are taking care of their grandchildren,” Crawford said. “They are already relying on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for food. There is no grocery store here in Quitman County, so access to healthy food is a significant challenge.”
Volunteer Joann Simpson, who has lived in Quitman County since 1966, played a major role in establishing the service.
“The business climate in this area has deteriorated since I moved here. We had a large farming group. That’s gone. We had industry and clothing manufacturing. That’s gone,” she said. “I’m well aware of what the people here need. We’ve gotten a dedicated group of people to reach out and give them what they need. It’s done strictly by donations and hard work.”
As part of the Mid-South Food Bank network, the pantry receives three meals for every $1 donated. Volunteers and Extension personnel include protein, whole grains and two to three types of fruits and vegetables in each box. Four volunteers at each distribution day are themselves recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits and help by packing boxes and delivering them to participants’ vehicles.
On Sept. 13, MSU personnel conducted a survey during a distribution day. It revealed that more than half of the 90 respondents could not afford to eat balanced meals before the food pantry began operations. Nearly 90 percent said they can now eat healthy meals using what they receive from the pantry.
Survey participants were asked if they ran out of food before the end of each month before and after the pantry was established. Sixty-three percent said they ran out before, while 38 percent said they still do.
Robert Jamison, Quitman County veterans service officer, volunteers each distribution day and has lived in Lambert for nearly 30 years.
“Until the pantry came, we had a problem trying to feed everyone in need here. SNAP helped but only got them so far,” Jamison said. “This food pantry gives nutritious food to people who wouldn’t be able to get it otherwise. The Extension Service has played a big part. Angie and Mari Alyce mean a lot to the community because they come here each time we distribute food, teach people about nutrition and show them how to fix healthy food.”
Mary Jane Walker of Crowder, a community near Lambert, said she is eating healthier as a result of Extension’s work.
“This has been a blessing to my family,” she said. “I’m eating more fruits and vegetables, and I’ve tried new foods. The salad Angie made today was very nutritious and something I hadn’t thought about. Their work has made a difference for me.”