Paper plates tell stories of area hunger

Sue Guinn Legg • Sep 28, 2012 at 10:18 PM

National Hunger Action Month comes to a close Sunday. The theme of the month-long awareness event was Speak Out About Hunger and was a good opportunity for a look at some of the most meaningful words Second Harvest Food Bank of Northeast Tennessee has to share on hunger in the local region.

In the eight-county area served by the regional food bank, church- and community-based pantries have been gathering the thoughts of people who come to them in need of food for the past three years. Written on white paper plates, their messages are poignant, powerful and filled with heartfelt appreciation that provides ongoing inspiration for the people who work at the food bank and everyone who visits there.

“If it was not for the food pantry, we would have no food at all. God bless you all.”

“Without this food pantry, there would be many days I would not eat. I thank God for this blessing.”

“Sometimes I wonder what we are going to do because there’s not much to eat. It’s a blessing to come here and get the food. It helps so much,” they read.

The food bank has preserved thousands of the plates and brings them out for display at every media conference and public event held at the food bank. They are the food bank’s ornaments. They’re fashioned into flower arrangements and center pieces for fundrasing dinners. They’ve been packed along to Washington, D.C., for meetings with the nation’s lawmakers. And this month, they were strung across the new Second Harvest facility in Kingsport for guests at a forum on hunger among Northeast Tennessee children and seniors and a regional Chamber of Commerce after-hours party to raise awareness of the need to address hunger.

Carolee Morrison, director of agency relations for Second Harvest, said she picked up the idea for the paper plate project several years ago at a Feeding America conference in Chicago.

“I thought it was a fantastic way for us to let the people who work at the food bank but don’t get out to meet the people we serve ... hear what people are going through,” she said.

The food bank distributed the plates to agencies across the region, which asked their clients to write down their answers to two questions, “Why are you here today?” and “What would you do if this agency was not here to serve you?”

As stacks of plates were returned to the food bank, Morrison said the responses “introduced us to the people we would never have the opportunity to meet and helped us understand the people we are serving and why what we do is important.” There were many sad stories:

- “My husband passed away. I have four children. I need help. I need you.”

- “Out of food. No money. Broke down vehicle. Can’t get to work.”

- “Sometimes we wonder what we are going to do because there’s not much to eat. It’s a blessing to come here to get the food. It helps so much.”

Since them, Morrison said, the food bank has used the plates to help people who aren’t familiar with Second Harvest and anyone who interested in what goes on at the food bank.

“We put them out on special occasions and it’s almost like having all the people we serve here with us,” she said. “For me personally, when I wonder, ‘why am I working so hard to do this?’ I can read a couple of these plates and its ‘Oh yeah, to help all these people.’ ”

As Hunger Action Month comes to a close, the food bank’s holiday food drive season is just beginning, and the work to meet the local need is entering its busiest season.

On Tuesday night, high school students from across the Tri-Cities will gather at the new Second Harvest facility to launch what has become one of region’s largest drives of the year. The fifth-annual Student Food Drive Challenge will kick off at 6 at Second Harvest’s future home in the former Sam’s Club building at 1027 Jericho Drive, Kingsport. Chandler Lawson, the reigning Miss Tennessee and official state ambassador for Second Harvest, will be on hand as students put out their challenge for all high schools in the eight-county region to join them in a month-long competition to see which school can collect the most food.

In the meantime, the food bank is asking all its supporters to enter an online competition for one of 50 $50,000 “Golden Spark” grants to be awarded by the Walmart Foundation to fight child hunger in the winners’ communities. The competition will run through Oct. 14 at walmart.com/hunger and at facebook.com/walmart. Participants may register once daily throughout the contest.

Adam Dickson, community relations coordinator for Second Harvest, said any Golden Spark fund designated for the food bank will be used expand its Food for Kids backpack program that provides take-home packs of food to 4,100 children in 135 schools in the eight-county region. Child sponsorships for food backpacks is $93 per school year and Dickson said $50,000 would go a long way to expand the program.

For more information about the student food drive, the Walmart Golden Spark competition or other ways to help, visit www.netfoodbank.org or call the food bank at 477-4053.

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