Extra Table is committed to fighting food insecurity with nutritious foods.

It all started with a phone call and a plea from a Hattiesburg mission pantry. They’d exhausted their food inventory and needed help. Ringing chef/restaurateur Robert St. John was the right call.

Edwards Street Fellowship Center’s plea became the start of Extra Table, founded by St. John when he tapped decades of restaurant industry experience for a solution. The fastest and easiest way to get the food where it was needed: Call his Sysco rep, place an order and have the truck drop-ship it at the agency.

Once he realized the extent of food insecurity in the state, Extra Table reached out, expanding by as much as 50 percent annually early on. Now marking its 10th anniversary year, Extra Table tackles hunger and delivers to 39 local food pantries and soup kitchens from north Mississippi to the Gulf Coast, east to west, with nutritious, fresh food on a regular basis.

Robert St. John and friend Tommy Griffin stand beside a Sysco truck at an early delivery to Edwards Street Fellowship Center.

In addition to that milestone, Extra Table is the featured charity of Taste of the South (TOTS). The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit founded by Southern transplants shares flavors of their region while supporting home state causes. Representing 13 Southern states, TOTS annually raises more than half a million dollars for charities throughout the South (and one D.C.-based charity). Its annual black-tie gala (April 6 at the Washington Hilton this year) draws 2,300 guests and typically sells out.

“I’m so honored — and grateful,” St. John says. “As someone who has served Southern food to restaurant customers for over 31 years, I’m happy to be feeding healthy food to our neighbors most in need. The organizers of this event will be happy to know that 100 percent of their donations will go to purchase healthy food for mission pantries and soup kitchens throughout Mississippi.”

Extra Table had been on TOTS’ radar for a number of years. With 2019’s theme of Community Resilience, “Extra Table was on our short list” of possible selections, says Alex Monié, on TOTS’ Mississippi committee. Fundraising, with the 13 states working together, has topped $600,000 in recent years, he says, with most coming from home state support.

The annual Taste of the South gala in Washington, D.C., draws thousands of guests to celebrate and support the region.

“Every state will receive a piece of the pie. Extra Table — because Mississippi is the featured state and they’re the featured charity and we worked hard to make sure we hit our fundraising goals — will receive a pretty significant piece of the pie. … Those numbers, unfortunately aren’t fully baked until after the gala, once all the checks come in. But we hope for it to be over $200,000.”

The recognition also brings a chance to tell Extra Table’s story on a national level, says Extra Table executive director Martha Allen. “To our knowledge, the way that we are set up to feed people isn’t done anywhere else. It’s such an easy template that can be dropped down on top of any state, no matter who the food distributor is, no matter what the demographics look like.”

Its ability to purchase healthy food in volume for consistent delivery, is a key driver, she says. “That food is delivered the last Wednesday of every month. Our pantries know what’s coming and when they’re going to get it, so they can have the confidence they’re going to have the ability to feed the people that they serve. … It’s just the most efficient and effective way to get food into the bellies of people that need it.”

Extra Table’s founding principles are that 100 percent of the money raised goes to food and that it will always be healthy, to help combat other Mississippi woes of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Planning is thoughtful, too, with tear-top tuna packages and pop-top cans, so recipients can access food even if they don’t have a can opener. Breakfast foods and healthy snacks are boosted in the summer, when kids don’t have access to school meals.

Extra Table founder Robert St. John stands with Martha Allen, executive director of the charity.

Partnerships are vital in the success, Allen says, such as with Partnership for a Healthy Mississippi, the newly formed College and University Anti-Hunger Alliance, Mississippi Center for Justice and all Extra Table’s feeding agency partners. “It wouldn’t work if we didn’t have partners, boots on the ground, all over the state, accepting our food and passing it out. … This is our specialty and that’s their specialty and it works beautifully together.”

“It’s partnerships like Extra Table that have paved the way for successful corporate responsibility programs to have guidance and success,” says Sysco marketing manager Katherine Capocelli. Sysco’s Nourishing Neighbors program provides local dollars to assist in food insecurity and more. “We know the commitment to end hunger is a mutual mission with partners like Extra Table.”

Extra Table’s 10th anniversary year brings other recognition, too. Extra Table is the WellsFest charity this year (with a fundraising goal of at least $50,000), and it’s also Lazy Magnolia Brewery’s charity for 2019.

“The thing that’s so important to us, that we value so much about Extra Table, is that it’s not just food but it’s nutritious food,’ says Ann McCullen, executive director at Edwards Street Fellowship Center, which distributed 230 tons of food in 2018. It serves an average of 1,500 households each month — more than 4,500 individuals — in a seven-county area in the Pine Belt region.

“Being in Mississippi, the majority of the people we serve have the chronic conditions of obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes,” McCullen says. “So, when we hand them a can of food that’s packed with preservatives and sodium and sugars … it’s not ideal by any means. We would much rather give them healthy food, and that’s something that Robert has been committed to since the beginning, with Extra Table — that it be as nutritious as possible.”

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Sherry Lucas is a veteran feature writer in Jackson whose stories spread the word on Mississippi's food, arts, culture and communities. A lifelong Mississippian and University of Mississippi graduate, Lucas has decades of daily newspaper experience. She is now a freelance writer and contributes regularly to Mississippi Today.