Hunger Coalition seeks to increase collaboration

By: Caleb Bedillion

TUPELO – A local coalition dedicated to fighting hunger in Lee County has identified a need for increased communication and stronger centralization among local food banks and aid agencies.

The recently formed Tupelo-Lee Hunger Coalition convened Wednesday to determine the shape its efforts will take in the near future. The coalition is led by the CREATE Foundation’s Tupelo/Lee County Community Foundation and the United Way of Northeast Mississippi.

It intends to act as a hub between local nonprofits, churches, schools and government entities, many of whom already devote significant resources to feeding the hungry.

“We want to know, what are the challenges? Where are the gaps? What can we leverage that’s already going on?” asked local United Way Executive Director Melinda Tidwell on Wednesday.

Much of this week’s stakeholder meeting was dedicated to small group discussions, many of which independently identified similar focus points as the basis for future collaboration.

A small-group gathering of local community leaders, for example, discussed the possibility of compiling a master list of churches and agencies that offer food services, including food pantries, hot meals and other assistance.

A gathering of hot meal providers, including Saints Brew, served at All Saints Episcopal Church, and the Salvation Army, likewise identified a single serving site as a key need for future collaboration.

Indeed, collaboration is the key principle behind the coalition itself, with organizers hopeful that participating organizations can greatly enhance their effectiveness through cooperation.

However, the coalition remains only in the first weeks of its formal existence and continues to gather data and compile concrete ideas for future action.

Key statistics already in view include information from the U.S. Department of Agriculture which indicates that an estimated 19 percent of Lee County residents suffer from some form of food insecurity.

This food insecurity manifests in different forms. It includes families that must rely on food banks or soup kitchens to stave off hunger, a reliance on free and reduced lunch programs offered through local schools or difficult decisions by parents to skip meals themselves or feed their children.

Such insecurity often takes the form of a difficult choice between buying food or paying utility bills. It also includes children who may rely on food from schools and face meager meals at home in the evenings or on weekends.

Coalition partners hope to invite increased public attention to the issue by increasing awareness that the ranks of the hungry include not only the homeless but also many among the working poor.

“There are people working every day just to feed their families,” said Hannah Maharrey, who runs an aid program at All Saints Episcopal Church focused on families with children.