At Back Bay Mission, the green beans don’t stay on the shelf for long. Those and other foods disappear quickly at Back Bay’s food pantry, the only place on the Mississippi Gulf Coast that allows individuals in need to choose their own food off the shelf.
The goal is to reduce waste while providing a vital service to the community – all while empowering clients and allowing them to maintain their dignity.
“Hunger is a real issue in our community,” says Emergency Assistance Caseworker Jill Cartledge. “I know people have to make hard choices.”
Cartledge says the demand for food assistance has risen steadily since 2014, the year the pantry initiated a client-choice model. And the need is staggering.
Feeding America, a nationwide hunger-relief organization, reported in 2015 that 42.2 million Americans were living in food insecure households, meaning they lacked reliable access to affordable, nutritious food. Mississippi – where 1 in 5 go hungry – tops the list with the highest hunger rate in the country.
Cartledge says she’s also seeing a growing number of older adults who don’t have enough to eat. She attributes some of that rise to cutbacks in food stamp benefits. According to the Mississippi Food Network, more than half of Mississippi’s seniors experience hunger.
To meet that need, the Back Bay’s pantry is open three days a week, more than any other program in the Gulf Coast. Eligible participants can shop every 30 days to stock up on necessities. The organization has already served more than 4,000 this year.
This Christmas, Back Bay will give out nearly 200 baskets complete with everything a family needs for a traditional holiday feast – turkey and all. The program also will distribute 150 backpacks stuffed with food and other necessities for people who are homeless.
“To me, it’s a very special, hallowed place,” Cartledge says. “So many miracles happen here every single day.”
Cartledge remembers one family in particular that visited the pantry.
“They came in on a Wednesday,” Cartledge says. “They had three children. The father was a veteran. They were living in their car. He told me he didn’t need anything but some food.”
Cartledge helped the family pack what they needed, with some extra treats for the children.
“He told me, ‘I’ve been to a bunch of places, but not one has treated me with this kind of respect.’”
Cartledge says it’s those experiences, along with help from many congregations of the United Church of Christ and support from local businesses and organizations that keep her energized.
“It’s the continuous overwhelming generosity from UCC members that sustains Back Bay Mission,” she says. “I’ve never seen that kind of commitment."