With the Mid-South Food Bank food drive coming up this weekend, the arrangement atop Susan Sanford's filing cabinet could get a little cramped.
Sanford, president and CEO of the Mid-South Food Bank, has collected what could be the contents of a gag gift basket, although she assures me that each foodstuff was once a sincere food-bank donation. A can of "Spotted Dick Pudding" with a broken seal, doggie breath mints, candy-dispensing pigs that, ahem, excrete little chocolate pellets came tucked among the cans of string beans and tomato soup. In her 18 years at the Food Bank, Sanford has added this to her list of responsibilities: plucking unusable donations from the pile and occasionally electing interesting ones to a Donation Hall of Fame on her filing cabinet.
What does Sanford do with the other offerings, the ones that don't make it to the Hall of Fame? Does she ever take them home for herself? Sanford quickly relays her "no tolerance" policy on pilfering food from the donation pile, rejects or no.
"I have fired an employee for taking a jar of peanut butter," she says. Sanford makes no apologies for taking a hard line: "This food is for the needy."
And there is no shortage of needy people in our city.
"From our last hunger survey," Sanford says, "just in our emergency agencies, 20,500 people a week relied on this food bank for their very next meal."
"We're serving people for a lot of different reasons," says Sanford, explaining the recent upswing in demand. "Someone had a medical emergency. They had an extra-high utility bill. They couldn't make their mortgage payment. About three weeks ago, two very nicely dressed women walked in the door, and I asked if they were here to volunteer. I made an assumption from looking at them. They said, 'No. We're looking for food assistance.'"
The women were then directed to a not-for-profit agency with a feeding program. The Food Bank does not distribute donated goods directly to individuals in need of assistance but rather serves as a collection and fund-raising hub for food pantries, youth programs, soup kitchens, and shelters.
Donations collected at the Food Bank come from a variety of sources, including community food drives, FEMA, Operation Feed (a workplace food drive), and the local food industry. And donations aren't just canned foods: fresh produce, bread products, and cereals complete the donations that lead to balanced diets. Master gardeners at Shelby Farms donate about 8,000 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables a year, and individual stores donate whenever they have available produce.
One interesting source for fresh produce is the "Sow to Grow" program at the Shelby County Correctional Center. Inmates have planted a garden with crops that they maintain, harvest, and donate to the Food Bank.
The majority of food still comes from the local food industry, although advancements in canned food production have negatively affected the scale of industry donations: Fewer mistakes at the cannery means fewer opportunities for the Food Bank to profit from minor imperfections.
"The national food industry will never have surpluses again like they did when food banks were founded," Sanford says. "There are just not as many mistakes, overruns, label changes — all the things that we used to thrive on. So we depend more and more on our community."
The food drive, from September 11th to September 13th, is one of many such calls for community help. While the Donation Hall of Fame is a charming homage to quirkiness, you should save your doggie breath mints and opt for high-protein foods, such as canned meats and peanut butter, which are always in short supply.
We know hunger exists in our city, but every once in a while we need to be reminded. September is Hunger Action Month. Here's your reminder, Memphis: "Give a Little, Feed a Lot." On September 11th, look for a truck in Poplar Plaza in front of Kroger, and bring your cans to help the Food Bank volunteers stock it. Throughout the weekend of September, many local restaurants will be asking for canned food or monetary donations in honor of Hunger Action Month. A list of participating restaurants will be posted at midsouthfoodbank.org. Questions? Contact David Stephens at firstname.lastname@example.org.