United Way hires new coordinator to oversee Hunger Coalition

By: Cristina Carreon

Image Credit: Thomas Wells

TUPELO – Jason Martin is focused on ending food insecurity in Lee County now more than ever.

The current director of the St. Luke United Methodist Church Food Pantry was recently hired as executive director of the Tupelo/Lee County Hunger Coalition in mid-February.

Martin has been hired on a part-time basis, retaining his current position at St. Luke, and works with area churches, nonprofit organizations, schools and corporate sponsors to formulate a plan to help eradicate hunger in Lee County.

“For me, this is an extension of what I’ve already been doing from the level of a food pantry at one location, so now our hope is that we will be able to serve these other pantries and bring more awareness to food insecurity around our county,” Martin said.

Martin, who has been on staff at St. Luke for 10 years, has been the director of the food pantry at St. Luke for five years, and felt the need to put his mission to a larger scale.

“This was a natural partnership between what we’re doing at the food pantry and what this job is going to entail, as far as being able to further the work of all of the other food pantries and all of the agencies that are serving hot meals,” Martin said.

With its new director, the coalition is now focused on forming a community board and active committees to address key issues.

The coalition is working on an eight to 10 week summer backpack lunch program to provide seven days of breakfast, lunch and snacks as well as weekend food for families. The program would also include three opportunities to receive fresh produce in the summer. All food products will come from the Mid-South Food Bank in Memphis.

A large fundraiser is planned for sometime in late 2018.

Martin will meet with school district officials, church staff and other organizations early next week to try to form a task group to maximize the impact of the coalition’s summer feeding program.

“We’re going to need distribution, warehousing and community assistance from churches to help at the schools on distribution days, so there’s a whole host of logistics that have to get worked out and we’re trying to get those things off the ground in the next few weeks,” Martin said.

The Hunger Coalition was formed in late 2016, and spent last year gathering data on hunger in Lee County, forming task forces to strategize ways to eradicate hunger in the county, as well as generating funds to hire a coordinator for the organization.

The coalition received seed money from The Marchbanks Fund through the CREATE Foundation and is a partnership between United Way and the CREATE Foundation.

In Lee County, nearly 20 percent of the population is suffering from food insecurity.

“It’s going to take a tremendous amount of community involvement and effort to reduce that number of people,” Martin said.

Martin said Feeding America is a nationwide food distributor in the U.S., many food banks in states are Feeding America banks, of which local food pantries are affiliates of.

Food security is defined as a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active and healthy life by Feeding America.

St. Luke Food Pantry has served meals for 23 years and was started in a small closet by a Sunday school class, serving eight families per month.

In 2011, the pantry outgrew its smaller space at the church.

“At that time we were using six classrooms and we moved to our current location on the corner of Eason and Veterans Boulevard, at the time of the move, we were serving about 600 families a month, and currently our numbers have doubled, we are now serving over 1,200 families each month,” Martin said.

Martin said there are five or six food pantries in Lee County with varying numbers of families served. Martin said families served have increased at all of the food pantries since their services began.

Helping Hands serves around 600 families per month and the Nettleton F.A.I.T.H. Food Pantry serves around 800 families per month.

“It’s not always the people that are dependent upon government services, a lot of times the working poor are in that same position, you have people working paycheck to paycheck at minimum wage, workers are barely making enough money to take care of themselves and their families,” Martin said.

“When they’re in that position, a lot of times they are making tough decisions between whether to spend on rent, utility bills, food or medicine, and these are the tough decisions they are faced with.”