Saturday, March 5, 2011

Mississippi Food Network -- Feeding Hungry Children in Mississippi

In Mississippi, the reported rate of food insecurity in 2009 was 17.1%, higher than the national average of 14.7%. And among Mississippi households with children, especially those headed by single parents, rates were still higher, over 20%. (See the USDA’s report Household Food Security in the United States, 2009.) Food insecurity in children is heartbreaking – it can deny them the nutritious food they need to be healthy, to develop their minds and bodies, to learn in school, and to become productive adults.

Food insecurity is often associated with severe health problems, particularly obesity. According to the Centers for Disease control, the rate of obesity in Mississippi in 2009 was the worst of any state, 34.4%, compared to the national average of 26.7%.

Cassandra Guess with OrganWise Guy

The Mississippi Food Network, located in Jackson, MS, is the Feeding America food bank serving most of the state. In the last few years, it has been increasing its role in combatting hunger and obesity in Mississippi. We interviewed Cassandra Guess, Programs Director, about the creative programs she runs focusing on nutrition education and children.

CLUB Nutrition
Cassandra oversees the CLUB Nutrition program (Children Learning and Understanding Better Nutrition), which aims to teach kids about what they can do to keep their bodies strong and healthy. They use materials from the OrganWise Guys program, including a doll that has removable, cartoon-character body parts to talk about the roles of different foods in keeping bodies strong and healthy – enter Calci M. Bones, Madame Muscle, Hardy Heart, and many others.

Kids Café
In 2007, with a grant from Uncle Ben’s, and in 2008, with a grant from the Lincy Foundation, the Mississippi Food Network began feeding children at six Mississippi Boys and Girls Clubs. Once the initial grants expired, Cassandra couldn’t bear to tell the kids that they would no longer receive food, so she continued the programs by providing snacks through the USDA CACFP (Child and Adult Care Food Program), which reimburses $0.74 for each nutritious snack served.  Currently, the Mississippi Food Network is supplying after-school snacks to 12 sites serving over 800 children.

Many programs would like to feed children a full meal after school or in the summer, but this is much harder, partly because many sites for children don’t have kitchen facilities. They can serve pre-packaged food, transport food to their site from a separate kitchen, or transport the kids to a location that prepares meals. Here, too, the Mississippi Food Network helps by providing food, helping to work out the logistics, and handling the details of CACFP.

BackPack Food

BackPack Program
When kids live in extreme poverty, they often have little access to nutritious food outside of school breakfast and school lunch programs. To help feed them on weekends, many food banks and other organizations provide needy children with child-friendly food to take home on the weekends. The Feeding America program is called the “BackPack Program.”

The Mississippi Food Network began its BackPack Program in 2008 by supplying packages of food to programs for children such as after-school programs, day shelters for homeless people, and Boys & Girls Clubs. In addition, some churches have funded the BackPack program for schools in their neighborhoods. The sites identify which children need weekend food, and the Food Network purchases the food using grant money and other donations. Currently, they’re supplying BackPack food to 9 sites and over 300 kids each week.

Food for the BackPack program is relatively expensive (about $3.65 per package) because, in addition to being nutritious and requiring no refrigeration, it must be easy for children to open and eat by themselves, with little or no preparation. The Mississippi Food Network purchases the packages of food they distribute from the Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee.  Each zip-loc bag contains 2 bowls of cereal, 1 cup of shelf-stable milk, 2 juice boxes, 2 fruit cups, and 2 entrees such as beef lasagna or chili, all packaged as individual servings.
Robrelle Murray

To get a first-hand experience with the BackPack program, we visited Operation: U.P.W.A.R.D. and met with Executive Director and founder Robrelle Murray.

A few years ago Robrelle started this program for kids who live in an extremely low-income neighborhood in Jackson. She said she got tired of other "Christians" complaining about the kids hanging around in this neighborhood where she grew up, but not helping because they were afraid to go there. So she started with a blanket on the lawn in a park, where she taught Bible lessons, played games, did craft projects, and gave food to kids who came. The program has now grown (with nearly no funding) to serving about 250 kids after school and on Monday evenings in its own building, which also houses a day care center for preschoolers. 

Robrelle described how the various government assistance programs that are meant to help people actually can trap them in poverty. For example, each dollar a person earns at a job means their benefits (food stamps, rent subsidies, etc.) are cut, but their expenses (child care, transportation, etc.) rise way more than they can then afford, making them worse off than they were before getting a job. People then can’t pay their rent, which forces them onto the streets or into even more substandard housing, and often forces their children to change schools over and over again. Robrelle tries to be the stable and loving presence in these children’s lives.

In addition to providing a snack to kids after school, Robrelle participates in the BackPack Program. Each Friday, she picks up the packages from the Mississippi Food Network and adds them to the back packs of the kids at Operation: U.P.W.A.R.D. The Friday we helped, 47 children received BackPack packages for them to eat on the weekend. The smiles were infectious, and many had to be reminded not to open them right now.


  1. Betsy and Carolyn,
    This is so wonderful that you're bringing us the reality of US hunger and the associated volunteer efforts that we'd never know about without you.

  2. How can I get involved in helping with the Backpack program?

  3. Probably the best way to find a BackPack program to get involved with is to call the food bank that services programs in your area. They may operate their own BackPack program, and they are likely to know of others being run in the area.

    To find your local food bank, go to

    Good luck!