CCUSA, Topashaw Farm, USDA get food to families during pandemic

October 13, 2020

Pope Francis commented in his encyclical, Fratelli tutti, that the Covid-19 pandemic has reminded the world’s inhabitants “that we are a global community, …that we are brothers and sisters of one another” (No. 32). The pope’s words may have no better illustration than the wonderful events that have occurred in a corner of Mississippi.

The place is Vardaman, a small town that sits on the eastern side of the state, just north of the Yalobusha River. About 1,300 people call it home. As you drive into Vardaman on Mississippi Highway 8, a welcome sign states that the town is the “Sweet Potato Capital of the World.” It’s also the place where a team of partners, both inside and outside the community, worked together to reduce food insecurity caused by the Covid-19 shutdowns.

Catholic Charities USA (CCUSA); Catholic Charities Jackson, Mississippi; Topashaw Farm; and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) implemented in Vardaman via the vendor Perfect Pact the USDA’s Farmers to Families Food Box Program, which resulted in 1,200 boxes of food being delivered to the townsfolk on September 30, 2020 (the program will continue through the end of October). The family-sized boxes contained fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy products and meat products. It only took two hours for the boxes to be distributed to hundreds of individuals and families. That was the happy result, but the process leading up to it is an even better story.

In April 2020, the USDA in response to the Families First Coronavirus Response Act began to purchase and distribute agricultural products to people in need across the U.S. with the cooperation of partners such as community and faith-based organizations, like CCUSA.

Jane Stenson, vice president of Poverty Reduction Programs & Services at CCUSA, has managed the relationship with the USDA and has reached out to Catholic Charities agencies throughout the pandemic in order to arrange shipments. In September, Stenson contacted Danna Johnson, who works as a program manager for Catholic Charities (Jackson) at a satellite office in Vardaman, asking her if she could use 1,200 boxes of food.

“I said, ‘Wait a minute: Did I hear you correctly?” remembers Johnson. “Did you say 1,200 boxes of food?”

Incredulity turned quickly to planning. “Immediately I thought this is a great opportunity for the communities around here because so many people are without work,” Johnson said, “but I also was thinking how are we going to do this.”

Stenson had told Johnson that to accept the boxes Catholic Charities would need storage space and refrigeration, things a small office like Johnson’s did not have. But in the same moment, Johnson said, one person came to mind: Melissa Edmondson.

Edmondson, and her husband Joe, own Topashaw Farm in Vardaman, a very successful farm – its main crop being the sweet potatoes the town is known for – that does have storage space, refrigeration, a loading dock and a forklift. Without hesitation, Johnson contacted Edmondson and asked if she would be willing to lend a hand in the Farmers to Families program. And just as quickly Edmondson said yes.

“It was like a mission,” Edmondson said. “We’re always looking for ways to help those in need. I was just glad that we had the cooler and storage space and were able to help out in that way.”

With September 30 set as delivery day, Topashaw Farm ready to receive the boxes and Catholic Charities’ intent on spreading the word, no one perhaps should have been surprised that the 1,200 boxes would disappear so quickly. It was a wonderful collaboration that responded to a real need in the community and demonstrated a concern for each other as brothers and sisters.

One story in particular represents the effort very well. Edmondson suggested that some of the boxes be delivered to the local school so that when families came to pick up their children, they could also get a food box. The families really appreciated the gesture. Johnson also knew of a family with children in the school headed by a single mother who did not have a car, so she phoned the mother to tell her about the food distribution. The mother replied that a teacher from the school had already delivered a box to her.

“The word of mouth really worked and created some beautiful moments,” Johnson said. “I think that people took this opportunity to really be in solidarity with others who are having such difficult times.”

Both Johnson and Edmondson feel blessed to have been part of the Farmers to Families program in Vardaman, and they look forward to other distributions through the month of October.

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