By Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal
CORINTH – Each day of the week, Jesse Pollack and his roommate have a different routine, a place they go in Corinth to get a hot meal and friendly, human interaction.
On Monday it’s at Living Free Ministries. Tuesdays it’s Foote Street Church of Christ. Wednesdays it’s a Bible study at Crosswind Ministry. Other faith-based organizations offer food throughout the rest of the week.
The faith communities staggered their services this way so they wouldn’t waste or duplicate resources.
“I’d starve to death if it wasn’t for these churches feeding,” said Jesse Pollack, a 52-year-old ex-con who, despite a lifetime of experience doing automotive and plumbing repairs, can’t find enough steady work to keep himself in groceries because of his record.
No questions asked
Five days a week, the Salvation Army in Tupelo feeds a hot meal. All comers are welcome, no questions asked. Just down the street, All Saints’ Episcopal Church feeds a hot breakfast Monday through Friday, too.
On Saturdays, when neither All Saints’ nor the Army is feeding, Lee Acres Church of Christ steps up. The Army is happy to let the church serve under the canopy outside its Carnation Street headquarters.
Like Pollack in Corinth, many who show up for the Saturday meal are the forgotten and distrusted of society.
“It’s hard to go in somewhere and interview and make a halfway decent impression when you’re dirty from living out on the street,” said 30-year-old Jason Lee, a homeless man who knows his way around a car engine but says his disheveled appearance and the lack of an address makes him unemployable.
On a rainy Saturday in early March, Lee sat quietly while eating a hot bowl of vegetable soup and a sandwich, served by the folks from Lee Acres.
Across from Lee was Richard Fuller, an out-of-work construction worker from Verona who’s been picking up scrap metal to make enough money to feed his wife, Mary, and a couple of grandkids.
“When you’re broke and hungry, pride doesn’t have much to do with it,” said Mary. She and Richard have a tough time just scraping together enough gas money to get to the feeding.
“Thank the Lord we have a roof over our head, but it’s hard, sometimes, to keep good groceries,” Mary said.
“This is not a very popular subject, and we tend to think that people who are hungry simply don’t want to work,” said Terry O’Rourke, a vowed brother with the Cincinnati-based Catholic order, the Glenmary Home Missioners.
For more than a decade O’Rourke oversaw a food pantry that served the needy in Aberdeen and southern Monroe County and he’s worked with the poor most of his life.
“I don’t think many of us have a good sense of how hard it is for folks to make ends meet in this economy,” he said.
In Corinth, Pollack takes what work he can get as a shade tree mechanic, but it’s for a pittance.
Recovering drug addict Tommy Stewart gets spotty work operating heavy equipment, but he was recently turned down for a job as a janitor because he didn’t have his GED.
On a cloudy afternoon in early March, Stewart sat in the offices of Crosswind Ministry, a Corinth nonprofit that helps people like him get plugged into employment opportunities, counseling resources and generally helps them get their lives back on track.
“The unemployment market is flooded right now with people who have clean records, so for guys like Jesse and Tommy, it’s just almost impossible to get hired,” said the Rev. Bobby Capps, Crosswind’s executive director.
“These are the guys who never make it past the human resources department.”
As he got up to leave Capps’ office, Stewart hesitated, then pointed toward the boxes of instant pasta and cans of soup that were stacked near the door.
Capps nodded, and motioned for Stewart to take them.
According to a recent study from the Food Research and Action Center, nearly 30 percent of Mississippians said there were times when they didn’t have enough money to buy food.
That’s the highest incidence of what’s called “food insecurity” in the country. Of the 435 congressional districts in the United States, Mississippi’s 1st District ranked 21st among those with the highest food insecurity.
“We’re dealing here not only with people who experience what we call food deprivation, but also with those who perhaps are a little better off but who are still really having to stretch their food dollar,” said Warren Yoder, executive director of the Public Policy Center of Mississippi.
Through an effort called The Food Project, the Policy Center is trying to raise awareness of hunger throughout the state.
At the Saturday feeding in Tupelo, Teresa Holt and her boyfriend rolled up in a rickety little pickup in the drizzling rain.
Both have made their living in construction but have been without regular work for at least three years.
Poor health is the main reason the couple barely gets by. He has heart problems. She suffers from high cholesterol and other afflictions. They spend a fortune on medicine, rent and his child support.
“After all that, we’ve got about $188 to eat on each month,” said Holt.
While her husband changed a flat tire in the rain, Holt took a bowl of soup and a sandwich from the Lee Acres folks and sat down.
People think that if you’ve got a roof over your head, food isn’t a problem, Holt said. But that just isn’t so.
“God has always come through for us, though,” she said.
Leaving his office in downtown Corinth, Capps drove east, through the Johns Street area, heading toward the Farmington Arms Apartments. It is one of six housing projects where Crosswind conducts outreach.
“It’s just complete survival mode around here,” he said as he pulled into the parking lot.
Criminal records and lack of education are creating a vortex of poverty in places like this, he said, and in the recession it’s leading to more empty stomachs.
Inside, a young mother of two told how she used to sell some of her food stamps in order to buy necessities. Liquidating the stamps cost her, though. She typically got about $150 for $200 worth of stamps.
As another way of getting money, Capps said, the poor sometimes sell their kids’ Social Security numbers so others can claim them as dependents on their taxes.
There’s a growing resentment in American society today, Capps said, toward people who receive government benefits. He believes it’s generated mostly by politics but it’s reverberating out into the poor neighborhoods, like Farmington, where few of the residents know much, if anything, about political matters.
The people to whom he ministers, he said, see the clamor as hatred of the poor.
Capps called up a Bible verse application on his smartphone and read Proverbs 6:30, which says, “Men despise not the thief if he steals to satisfy his appetite when he is hungry.”
“I’m not defending theft, don’t get me wrong,” Capps said. “It’s just something to think about.”
The young mother said that with the food stamps she didn’t sell, she bought things like bologna, cereal and instant noodles.
“You hardly ever buy what you want, or even what you know is best for your kids,” she said. “You buy what’s going to last, what’s cheap. You rack up.”
Foods high in sodium and fat, and low in vitamins and nutrients, foods with long shelf lives, are often the foods most available to the poor, said Donna Speed, nutrition services director for the Mississippi State Department of Health.
She described some areas in the state as “food deserts,” where, because of lack of transportation, for example, the poor don’t have access to sources of good, wholesome food.
A gas station, with candy and processed food, might be the only thing within reach.
That’s a big reason why, Speed said, Mississippi is the most obese state, and, seemingly incongruently, the hungriest state.
After they finished their lunch, around 12:15 on Saturday, Richard and Mary Fuller thanked the folks from Lee Acres for a good, wholesome meal.
Before heading back to the trailer park in Verona, they said they’d return to the Salvation Army on Sunday, as they often do, for morning worship.
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at (662) 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org