Have you ever thought about how easy it is to take food and other basics for granted? It may be clearer now, in the midst of coronavirus; many stores are running low on items such as bread and toilet paper. But struggling to buy those things is a regular reality for more area residents than you might imagine.
Cheryl Jackson, owner and founder of Minnie’s Food Pantry, has made it her mission to help those people, and to change the stigma of hunger. Cheryl Jackson and Zoya Jackson, the organization’s executive assistant, told us how they’re doing just that—and how the virus is making their work more important than ever.
Minnie’s is celebrating its 12th anniversary this month. How has your operation changed and grown over the years? Cheryl Jackson: We opened Minnie’s Food Pantry in a small, 500-square-foot building, and we were serving 50 families a month. At that time, families could come every two weeks, and if we were able to give them peanut butter or tuna as a source of protein, we were really happy.
Fast-forward 11 years, and now we provide families with complete meals that include everything from fruits, vegetables and staple items, but they also receive packages of meat—sometimes we give out steaks, salmon, every meat that you and I would want to cook for our own families. Minnie’s serves about 5,000 people per month, and each family that walks through our doors receives approximately 75 pounds of food on every visit.
We also offer toiletry bags to those in needs when available, and we have a resale boutique where items are available at a fraction of the cost at grocery stores. Every dollar spent provides three meals through the food pantry.
How do you help families in addition to providing food and personal care items? CJ: We provide training classes for families about how to cook healthier meals, how to balance their checkbook and how to get better jobs. At Minnie’s, we partner with companies that have jobs available and are willing to hire some of our clients on the spot if they meet their requirements.
This is an attempt to help transform lives by empowering those we serve. Recently Amazon hired 36 of the people we serve; [that took] some of them from $9 per hour at other jobs to $15 per hour with benefits on their first day.
You have a program focused primarily on kids: Camille’s Kids. How does that work? CJ: Camille’s Kids is a program that’s designed to make sure every kid that comes to Minnie’s Food Pantry receives a healthy snack bag while they’re there. It’s expanded into the schools, where we provide snacks for kids that can’t get food stamps or who haven’t had a meal for the day.
We work with the school counselors who deal with the kids, and they distribute the food to any child they see in need. Parents also have the opportunity to go by a Minnie’s Pantry Project in their child’s school to pick up food items to assist with dinnertime.
Hunger seems to have a stigma attached to it. How is the pantry working to change that? CJ: The stigma about the hungry is a picture that has to be repainted. Some people believe that people who come to food pantries are lazy and they deserve less than the best. They feel [those people are] trying to beat the system. That’s not the case; that hungry person could be someone working in a cubicle next to yours. So the pantry works hard to share the stories of the people that visit. Under 10% are homeless.
Really, the people we serve are the working poor—the family who had a sudden medical emergency that wiped out their savings, the grandmother helping to raise her grandkids, or the father whose salary was reduced and now they’re living above their means.
Do you feel that stigma is an ongoing battle because of where you’re located? People typically think of Collin County as a more affluent area. CJ: Our demographics make it very difficult sometimes for us to receive a grant because of the ZIP codes of the people that we serve. Many people don’t feel there are families that need something as simple as a meal. We missed out on a huge grant because of our ZIP code, and we were devastated. We have to convincecorporations that move here that we’re in need.
But when they come and serve at Minnie’s Food Pantry, they see the need and they immediately ask how can they help more. With the virus now, we need assistance now more than ever.
Speaking of the coronavirus, how is it impacting the pantry? Zoya Jackson: It’s really impacting us. A lot of the food pantries around [DFW] have closed. Today, we were supposed to have 50 volunteers, but we only have 12 because employers are telling their employees to stay home. In a normal week, our trucks pick up from 40–50 stores to collect nonperishable items, fresh meats, fresh produce and bakery goods.
With the pandemic, our pickups have gone from 10 pallets a day to less than two. Food drives are being canceled along with volunteer engagements because of social distancing. But with the growing need and economic impact on families, Minnie’s plans to remain open for as long as we are able. It is more crucial now than ever.
What about with the schools closing for extra weeks after spring break? ZJ: That’s a big deal too. From the schools we’ve talked to in Plano, 65% of the kids in those schools are on reduced lunch or need food assistance. From the schools we’ve talked to in McKinney, it’s 52%. This is going to have a big impact on them.
CJ: The number of clients is naturally on the rise, as we always see a surge during times when schools are closed. However, with the extended school closures and many people out of work, combined with the fact that many items are not accessible in local stores, we anticipate a higher number of families served than usual.
In what way does providing food impact someone’s overall wellness, beyond nutrition? CJ: When you provide a healthy meal, a person is able to think better; they’re able to perform whatever task necessary with a smile, and it removes their worry and fear.
Donate. Cheryl Jackson says her organization’s shelves are going bare thanks to minimal donations and fewer food drives due to coronavirus concerns. You can get more information on donating by visiting minniesfoodpantry.org or texting MINNIES to 41444. Currently, the food pantry’s most-needed items are cereal, canned meats, spaghetti, spaghetti sauce and jelly in plastic containers. Every dollar donated provides three meals to a family.
When it’s safe and healthy to do so, host a food or toiletry drive at your job or church. “There are so many fun options and ways for a person to become involved with our charity and help feed our community,” says Jackson. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Volunteer. Email email@example.com to see how you can help on-site.
Does your family need help? Contact Minnie’s. “Minnie’s Food Pantry remains 100% community funded in an effort to be able to serve all people in need of food assistance, rather than having to restrict who we can serve based on ZIP code,” says Zoya Jackson.
Photo courtesy of Minnie’s Food Pantry.