Commentary: Hungry Tennesseans deserve to have burden eased

The withholding of surplus funds by elected officials in pandemic is unconscionable

December 4, 2020 5:28 am
Throughout the pandemic, families have turned to food banks for help. In this picture, food is distributed in North Nashville in fall 2020. (Photo by John Partipilo

Throughout the pandemic, families have turned to food banks for help. In this picture, food is distributed in North Nashville in fall 2020. (Photo by John Partipilo

I recently ran for office, because I was concerned about what I saw happening in my community. When I was campaigning, I posted a video on social media that I took on the way home one day showing a food line near my district. It stretched for blocks and blocks, hundreds of cars, full of our neighbors waiting for food. It broke my heart. What hurt more was the comments I received on the post. Many people called it fake, claimed it was full of freeloaders, and left other hateful false comments. 

The folks in charge of the incredible effort to feed these families in need saw the post and the comments and invited me to come help someday to see for myself what people in the lines were experiencing. And a couple of weeks ago I took them up on their offer. I spent the better part of a day packing and handing out fresh produce boxes as part of a Herculean effort to stop some in our community from going hungry, at least for one week.  

I knew the stats going in — Over 370,000 people in the Mid-South are food insecure; food banks are reporting incredible strain as their rolls have doubled since March; the rate of child food insecurity is 21.6 % since the pandemic began; and on and on. But the numbers did not prepare me for what I was about to see.

What I saw was veterans thanking me for my service, single mothers with desperation in their eyes with young kids piled in the back seat waving to me, elderly couples holding hands and saying prayers of thanks, Memphians in need, and all full gratitude, none there simple for a freebie. The terrible truth is this: in the week before Thanksgiving our neighbors were going hungry. You might not see it, or might not want to, but it is there. Children virtual schooling and away from reliable hot meals are hungry. Seniors debating paying medical bills or grocery bills are going hungry. Single parents who are suddenly out of work are going hungry to feed their kids instead. 

Food pre-bagged for a mobile food bank in Memphis. (Photo: Jerri Green)
Food pre-bagged for a mobile food bank in Memphis. (Photo: Jerri Green)

Brian, who helps organize this particular mobile food pantry, and I talked about the video I posted and how people doubted the need was real, some citing the nice cars in the line. He told me a story of a man

who was in the line the month before, in a Jaguar. inside were his four kids. He was a single parent and had lost his job the day before. His first thought was: “I have to make sure my children eat.” He asked for prayers with his food box.

By the time I left (five hours into what was supposed to be a two hour shift), we had helped over 400 households. The line still stretched for blocks. Brian asked me to count the telephone poles so he could guess how many cars were left and text him. Seven cars fit between each set of two poles. I counted as I left —14 poles. I heard later they ran out of food and had to turn others away. Hundreds of families here in our community, some that got in line at midnight, all for food. Their need was very much real, their suffering was apparent, and their thanks were genuine. 

The other thing I saw was caring volunteers, servant leaders, people of faith working for hours on end without a break to help their fellow man in need. They moved from station to station, jumping in wherever they could best help. We even had someone blow a tire in the middle of the line. Several folks stepped up to fix the tire while others shuffled positions to keep the line rolling.

It made me think about what was not being done by our newly elected leaders. How are they doing their part to ease the burden these families are facing in these unprecedented times? 

The Department of Human Services says Tennessee has a $741 million surplus in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families bank account. That is money could go to help these mothers and their children, these senior citizens, these veterans who have served our country.  Continuing to not only withhold funds from programs that could help low-income families is inexcusable. 

It is also unconscionable that our representatives aren’t calling for a special session to help do what they can to solve this problem. Regardless of party, they have a responsibility to help their constituents. I hope as they celebrated Thanksgiving they stopped for a minute to consider those who didn’t  have a meal, because after all, this food pantry happens on Thursday, and last week was a holiday.


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Jerri Green
Jerri Green

Jerri Green, a former criminal defense attorney, is now Director of Community Engagement at the Community Legal Center. She is a wife and mother of three young children, and recently ran for a seat in the Tennessee House of Representatives.