With the holiday season well underway, donating to local food banks is on the minds of many. But the Mid-South Food Bank might not need your unwanted cans of syrupy fruit, sugary sodas, or bags of potato chips.
That's because the food bank has set a new challenge of not just assisting those who are hungry for food, but also those who are hungry for nutrition.
The Mid-South Food Bank provides food to those in need in the Memphis area and surrounding counties, but the organization has expanded its mission to include "food insecurity," which deals more with the nutritional quality of food.
Food insecurity refers to those who only have access to food that has little or no nutritional value or is over-processed, like chips and soda.
Shelley Alley, the chief development officer of the Mid-South Food Bank, said food insecurity in the Mid-South has helped the organization expand. The organization serves an average of about 23,000 people each month in 31 counties in Tennessee, Mississippi, and Arkansas.
"At any given time, people don't have enough access to nutritional food," Alley said. "We've gotten away from 'hungry,' although we still use it, but 'food insecurity' is a little broader. There are around 405,000 people in those 31 counties who are food insecure — about one in five. We're impacting a lot of people, but there's still a lot of room to grow."
Right now, 250 partners with the Mid-South Food Bank are working to make sure that families in the area are not just eating but are eating well.
"We do food distribution. We have partner agencies — that can be pantries, soup kitchens. If they are a partner agency of us, then they are allowed to order from us," Alley said. "The food is free to them, but they pay a small handling fee, which is on average less than 50 cents per pound. That basically just covers our cost when we deliver the food and bring it in."
The most efficient ability the food bank has is its buying power. Alley said donating money to the Mid-South Food Bank gives them the ability to purchase produce, meat, and fresh items that may not be able to be donated.
"When a dollar is donated to us, we can provide three meals with that dollar," Alley said. "When donating food, we try to tell them to look at the meat proteins, like canned tuna [and] chunky soup, then canned vegetables, and canned fruit in 100 percent fruit juice. Sometimes we do get snack foods and condiments, and while those are needed, they don't have much nutrition. We try to provide nutritious food. Our goal is for at least 80 percent of the food we distribute to be nutritious, and we're hitting at 85 percent right now."
Alley said she believes that hunger can be solved, but the issue takes a community effort.
"We're on track this fiscal year to distribute 16 million pounds of food, which is amazing, but when you look at the need, we really need to be hitting closer to 25 million pounds," Alley said. "We are very fortunate of the community support that we receive, especially during the holiday season, but there's always more need."