By Karon Warren | Photography courtesy of Robert St. John/Extra Table
Hattiesburg restaurateur finds an efficient way to supply healthy food to non-profit pantries in 29 counties around Mississippi. His goal is to reach all 82.
In 1987, Robert St. John opened his first restaurant, Purple Parrot, in Hattiesburg; in the ensuing years, he has gone on to open four more restaurants – Crescent City Grill, Tabella, Ed’s Burger Joint and Branch, and The Mahogany Bar, all in Hattiesburg. Throughout the years, St. John also plugged into his community, spreading out his philanthropy to his neighbors. Those individual efforts coalesced into a concerted mission after a phone call in 2009.
At the time, the Edwards Street Fellowship Center in Hattiesburg was providing emergency and supplemental food to 800 families every month through its food pantry. The food pantry filled its shelves solely based on local donations. The center called St. John in a panic because it was completely out of food. St. John didn’t hesitate. He called Sysco, his food service distributor, to see if they could help. Sysco didn’t hesitate, either, so St. John put together an order, which was quickly shipped to the food pantry.
The entire situation got St. John to thinking.
“‘You know,’ I thought, ‘I bet there’s an easier, more efficient way to collect food, and they won’t run out of food,’” he says.
St. John readily admits he didn’t think there was a food shortage in Mississippi or that the food pantry would need a lot of food.
“I quickly learned there was a huge problem,” he says. “It’s a real deal, and my eyes were opened.”
Therefore, he went back to Sysco to see if the company was interested in working together to help alleviate the food shortage. Again, there was no hesitation on their part.
So, in 2009, St. John launched Extra Table, a nonprofit that seeks to supply food to those in need throughout Mississippi through local organizations.
“We founded it on two principles,” St. John says. “One, 100 percent of money raised would be used to purchase food, and, two, we provide healthy food.”
St. John toured food pantries around the state to see what they had and what they needed. Most were supplied by food drives, which resulted in many shortcomings.
“Food pantries are the most inefficient way to supply food because people use it as an opportunity to clean out their own pantries,” St. John says.
Extra Table took a different approach. It is not a government organization, but, instead, is privately funded.
“We fundraise and collect funds from donors just like you,” says Martha Allen, executive director of Extra Table. “Donations are coded by zip code so your money stays local, and 100 percent of your donation is spent on food.”
Extra Table takes those funds and purchases new and healthy food from Sysco, who delivers and shelves the food at participating food pantries. Allen points out that $1 spent on buying food in bulk from Sysco goes a lot further than $1 spent at the grocery store for everyday shoppers.
“Extra Table is such a smart and efficient way to make an impact throughout our state,” Allen says.
Together, Extra Table and Sysco now ship more than 14 tons of food on the last Wednesday of every month to 32 food pantries in 29 counties. Every agency is approved by Feeding America, the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization.
“Extra Table has been growing rapidly each year since 2009,” Allen says. “With our 10th anniversary upon us, I expect growth, increased visibility, and we are always looking for new partners to help us tell our story.”
St. John says his ultimate goal is to cover all 82 counties in Mississippi.
“There’s help for people in their communities, and we can help ends meet,” St. John says. “Food is the most basic need. If you don’t have it, the other stuff doesn’t matter.”
There is the possibility of taking Extra Table nationwide, but it’s not something St. John is ready to consider right now.
“We need to get all of our ducks in a row in Mississippi and make sure we’re running on all cylinders before we go nationwide,” he says. “There’s literally no part of the country we couldn’t get to.”
Those interested in supporting Extra Table can donate online at the nonprofit’s website, and can direct their donation to the community of their choice. Anyone working with a food pantry or in need who wants assistance from Extra Table should contact Allen. However, St. John cautions them to be prepared for her response.
“I warn anyone who contacts Martha, she will be there,” he says. “She’s on fire.”
He may not admit it, but St. John seems pretty on fire for Extra Table as well. Ten years ago, he answered the call of his community, pitching in to help because he could. He didn’t imagine what would transpire throughout the next decade.
“I never really planned on this, but it’s what I’m supposed to be doing,” St. John says.
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