By Robert St. John
During the holiday season we think of food. Maybe I should restate that. During the holiday season I think of food.
Over the 12 years I’ve been writing this column, the subject matter around this time of year always centers on holiday food. I have written long treatises about adding marshmallows to sweet potatoes, whether to eat roast beef or turkey on Christmas Eve, or making fun of dishes such as mincemeat and figgy pudding.
I usually write about a meal I remember in my youth— something at my grandmother’s dining table or Christmas morning sweet rolls eaten while opening presents under the tree. What I have failed to mention in these columns is that, as a child and as an adult, I never missed a meal. Never. Not one. If I did miss a meal it was because I had the luxury of skipping that meal or that I wasn’t hungry.
Actually, I don’t know if I have ever been truly “hungry.” Sure my stomach has growled when I chose to skip a meal. But even when I was counting-loose-change-in-the-sofa-cushions broke I ate regularly.
Way too many Mississippians don’t have the luxury of skipping meals. Far too many mothers in our state spend a good part of their day wondering how and when their child’s next meal will materialize.
There are 647,000 Mississippians who suffer from food insecurity. That is one out of every five citizens of our state. That’s not a statistic from some third world country across the globe. That is the reality we are living in right here at home.
The largest segment of the population that receives help from emergency food sources is our over-65 senior population. There are too many Mississippi seniors who are living on a fixed income and trying to make a decision— right now— about whether to pay their electricity bill or go to the grocery store.
In Mississippi there are over 125,000 children under the age of 18 who miss meals— not because they are too busy playing video games with their friends, not because they don’t like the restaurant choice their parents made that night, not because they don’t feel like eating what mom put on the table— because the food isn’t there. The cupboard is literally empty.
Childhood hunger in Mississippi is real and it is serious. Way too many of our state’s children are eating a school breakfast, a school lunch, and not eating again until the next day at school. That is happening every day in our state, and it’s not just the so-called “poor” counties and regions. There are over 4,500 food-insecure children in my two “prosperous” home counties of Forrest and Lamar.
These men, women, and children— our friends and neighbors— need food now. They also need it in March and July and August and every other day of the year. We think of these things during the holidays because we are blessed and sometimes feel a little guilty. But to the food-insecure population, there is no difference between the 4th of June and December 25th.
Talk to your spouse or significant other. This year might be a good year to scale down on the gifts you give to one another. Take a portion of what you were going to spend on clothing, jewelry, or electronics and make a donation that will help a senior citizen or a kindergartener that has no idea from where his or her next meal is coming.
Give to the Mississippi Food Network or a local soup kitchen or mission pantry. A statewide organization that I am affiliated with— Extra Table— delivers healthy foods to mission pantries and soup kitchens throughout the state (over seven tons of food in November, alone). Give to Extra Table and they will see that the food gets to the people who so desperately need it.
Support these organizations throughout the year. Hunger knows no season.
This December I am, once again, thinking of food. Though this year the food I am thinking about is the food that needs to be on someone else’s table. During this holiday season, help those in your community who are trying to help feed others. Do it now, do it next month, and all throughout the year. The greatest gift one can give is compassion through action and service.
Note: The Extra Table Christmas Concert is the traditional story of Christmas in song and narration with a symphony orchestra, area school choirs and narration by Deanna Favre at the Saenger Theater in downtown Hattiesburg on December 11th at 7 p.m. All proceeds go to Extra Table.