ROBERT ST. JOHN: Smithville needs donations and I challenge you to help

By Robert St. John

If one had been watching the national news recently, he or she would have seen hour upon hour of coverage about the terrible tornado devastation that blew through the state of Alabama. The damage was catastrophic, and our hopes and prayers are with all the citizens of Alabama and the other states that were affected by that historic carnage.
As with Hurricane Katrina, you might not have seen as much national coverage about Mississippi. Actually, depending on how you get your news, you might not have seen anything at all. You might even live in the Southern part of Mississippi and be oblivious to what happened to our neighbors in the central and northern parts of our state. Unfortunately, there are too many who live in those devastated areas whose lives will never be the same again.
In a matter of minutes, more than 35 Mississippians were killed, 2,527 homes were severely damaged, 993 homes were completely destroyed and the damage assessments are still under way.
Many communities and towns were impacted, though none as much as Smithville.
If you’re like me, you don’t even know where in the state Smithville is located. Until last week, I had no clue. I did a cooking demo in nearby Amory last year and never once saw as much as a sign leading to Smithville.
You might not know where Smithville is, but you need to learn, and soon, because the people of Smithville need your help, desperately. Smithville is no longer there.
Writing for Time magazine, Carmen Sisson wrote, “The post office is gone. The school is gone. City Hall is gone. Most of the churches are gone. Nearly every building in Smithville, Mississippi is gone – or so heavily damaged they will have to be demolished. The devastation from last week’s F5 tornado is so widespread, so absolute, that it’s easier to tally what remains: the telephone company, Coker’s Han-D-Mart, and an unshakable sense of faith.”
Taylor Teepell with the Mississippi governor’s office said, “After the tornado, Smithville has no business, no avenue of commerce, and no schools.” In one instant, everything was wiped out.
Smithville is a town of 900 people. So far, 16 people have died. The tornado left a three-mile path of destruction, half a mile wide. The 205-mile-per-hour winds destroyed 250 homes, and another 70 in the neighboring Wren community. In all, 300 families have been displaced in a town of 900 people. Virtually everyone is without a home.
I am writing this column sitting on my patio. I have the option of being in the air conditioning, but it’s a cool evening. I am feeling a little stuffed from the Baked Ziti I ate for dinner and I’m considering having some Honey Nut Cheerios for dessert. In all honesty, I feel guilty, but my guilt is overcome by a strong need to do something to help good Mississippians who have no home, no patio – in some cases – no living family members left, and – in every case – no food. In Smithville, there is no dessert, just a big bowl of nothing.

One way to give
Almost 18 months ago, I had an idea that turned out to be a new way for restaurants, individuals and other businesses to help supply mission pantries and soup kitchens with much-needed food. Extra Table was born and, with the help of foodservice distributor Sysco and hundreds of generous donors, we have slowly grown into a steady supplier to several agencies that are helping to feed our state’s needy.
In light of Mississippi’s recent tornadic destruction, I have decided to temporarily alter Extra Table’s mission for one project – Smithville. For the next week, we will accept donations to help the victims of tornado damage in Smithville. All of the donations will go to purchase food to those who so desperately need it.
Linda Holden, director of the food bank in Amory (a United Way agency) has set up a point of distribution center in one of the few buildings left standing. They have a base inventory they’ve been working from, but the food is going to run out soon. Please, don’t let that happen.
Join me in purchasing a food bundle by contacting The Greater Pine Belt Community Foundation at (601) 583-6180, www.pinebeltfoundation.org or The Community Foundation of Greater Jackson at (601) 974-6044, www. cfgreaterjackson.org and donate to Smithville through Extra Table.
100 percent of all donations will go to purchase food. I plan to deliver the food bundles personally. Hopefully, you’ll take that as a personal challenge to donate so much food that I’ll have to make two trips in my rental truck. Please, put me to work.
For those who are interested, the food bundles can be viewed at www.extratable.org. Any donation in any amount is welcome. If you can’t afford to purchase a $250, $500, or $750 food bundle, no problem, give $10, $20, $30, and it will go toward purchasing much-needed food for those who lost everything they ever knew in an instant.

Robert St. John is a restaurateur, chef and author of numerous books.