Prior to COVID-19, 25,000 children in the Mississippi Delta region were identified as food insecure. As the pandemic shuttered schools and youth support organizations in one of the nation’s most impoverished areas, the Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi mobilized, acting as an organizational control center and providing vital resources and equipment to local food pantries and other nonprofits helping to feed children in 11 counties. I asked Keith Fulcher, the foundation’s president, what it takes to launch a food campaign during a global crisis.
Tell me about the communities you serve.
Hunger has always been a topic in the Mississippi Delta. Personally, my mother’s family in Vicksburg received food and shoes from the Salvation Army and the Sisters of Mercy. My aunt on my father’s side of the family in Yazoo City wore dresses made out of flour sack clothes. My father didn’t wear shoes to school until about the 9th grade. The generational poverty here is heartbreaking. Several of our counties are among the most food insecure in the nation. A lot of people don’t realize that you can be an American and be hungry, especially in the Mississippi Delta. The reality is you have to keep a child fed before you can focus on their healthcare, education and future.
Some of our counties don’t have a single grocery store. I spoke to a lady recently who told me that if she wants to buy an onion, she has to drive 30 minutes to the nearest store. The lack of availability of nutritious food has subjected our communities to higher rates of obesity, diabetes and other serious health problems.
How has your mission shifted during COVID-19?
The Community Foundation has always prioritized education and health for children. When the pandemic hit, we placed our focus on feeding children who were not returning to school after spring break. The vast majority of children in our counties receive breakfast and lunch from their public schools. This caused a crisis for children having access to nutrition. With support from the Walton Family Foundation and others, we launched the FEED Northwest Mississippi Fund, which as of June  has granted $258,000 to 60 food-related nonprofits.
Keeping children fed is the singular focus of our foundation right now. It’s been a rewarding addition to the work we have done over the past 20 years to enhance the health and education of children in the Mississippi Delta.
Have you encountered any challenges?
Initially, our staff knew little about the food pantry business. Not only were we dealing with the USDA and national food distributors, we were trying to identify the community members on the ground—the first responders, pastors and good Samaritans running the localized nonprofits whom we could financially support in order to get food to children.
There was no comprehensive list of pantries in the Delta, so the first thing we did was scour every county—with emails, phone calls and surveys—trying to find nonprofits to apply for a FEED Fund grant.
Our foundation’s mission is to connect people who care with causes that matter. Overnight we became a convener for food resources and a funding source in our 11 counties.
Tell me about some of the groups you have been able to support.
In Coahoma County, a former fireman who is director of Coahoma County Youth Outreach, Kendric Travis, wanted to know how he could continue to help kids after his county’s recreation center was closed. He enlisted the local fire station to pack 800 snack bags, and he and his two sons drove to the most rural places in the county until every last bag was gone.
The Clarksdale Care Station transformed itself into a mobile food pantry, providing pallets of produce and meat, which volunteers placed into the trunk or backseat of vehicles. The last distribution they did was to 600 cars in the civic center parking lot, with rows of cars filling the parking lot.
In Greenwood, in Leflore County, the Greenwood Mentoring Group gives neighborhood youth a safe haven and provides an afternoon snack. When the pandemic hit, the children started bringing in their brothers and sisters. In about a week, they nearly doubled the children they were serving.
The pandemic resurfaced a major issue that has always plagued the Delta.
Additionally, the Greenwood Interfaith Ministries Community Kitchen has served 18,000 meals since March 18, working around the clock to feed more than 350 people a day.
A group of medical students began delivering boxes of food and created a mobile handwashing station. Networks of pastors and church members are packing boxes, renting U-Hauls and delivering meals to children and the elderly.
We have also started buying and repairing walk-in freezers after the Odessa Grant Food Pantry in Tunica told us they were having to give out all their frozen and refrigerated food every day due to a lack of refrigeration and freezer space.
How long can you continue to support these children and families in need?
We will keep it up for as long as we see a need. The pandemic resurfaced a major issue that has always plagued the Delta. The support from our community members, and the matching grant that the Walton Family Foundation has provided, will allow us to feed more of our neighbors over a sustained period of time as we work to create a long-term solution to hunger.