SIKESTON -- Last summer a group of young people gleaned local farmers' fields for 35,000 pounds of potatoes, and the Restored Justice Program at the Southeast Correctional Center in Charleston planted a garden full of fruits and vegetables.
All of the produce was donated to the Bootheel Food Bank in Sikeston in an effort to provide area residents with fresh produce.
"We picked up fresh produce every week (from the prison)," said Dorene Johnson, executive director of the Bootheel Food Bank in Sikeston. "They grew tomatoes, turnips, bell peppers, squash, cucumbers, pumpkins, onions and beets."
Nationwide food banks for the poor are increasing their stores of fresh and frozen produce and lean meats, and they're trying to teach their customers how to eat healthier.
"There are a lot of people that need help," Johnson said. "A lot of people are without a job or have low income jobs and they're really hurting for food. They have to make a choice to pay their electric bill or buy food -- It's hard to imagine, but we face it every day."
Serving a 16-county area that includes Scott, New Madrid, Mississippi and Stoddard counties, the Bootheel Food Bank agencies prepare over 178,000 meals and provide 13,500 people with food basket programs each month.
In 2003, over 4.5 million pounds of food was distributed by the Bootheel Food Bank.
In recent years, there has been a cutback in food for the Bootheel Food Bank, admitted Allen Hinds, Bootheel Food Bank office manager. However, the newly implemented Commodity Supplemental Food Program has made up for that, he said.
"We are allotted so many people that we can help, but CSFP has filled the gap where we have had a reduction of incoming food otherwise. We fill 2,750 CSFP food boxes a month with the use of volunteers," Hinds said.
CSFP boxes contain 10 basic food items including canned meat, vegetables, fruit, starch-type foods, powdered milk, cheese and juice. Over 95 percent of these boxes are delivered to seniors in 11 of 16 of the Bootheel's county distribution area.
Luckily, Bootheel Food Bank receives help from volunteers of all ages and religions. Local school youth groups volunteer to fill boxes and donate food items. For example, last Saturday a group of 20 youth filled 1,034 boxes in three hours, Hinds said.
Corporate grants by companies such as Kraft, ConAgra and Tyson have also helped food banks and their affiliate agencies increase their capacity to store and ship refrigerated and frozen foods.
''It didn't do any good for us to accept a truckload of yogurt with a use-by or sell-by date of next week if we didn't have anybody who could accept delivery of that,'' said Sue Hofer with America's Second Harvest. The Chicago-based organization works with more than 200 regional food banks.
In the 2003 fiscal year, America's Second Harvest distributed more than 83 million pounds of fruits and vegetables. That's a gigantic leap from 3.8 million pounds in 1995.
''Obviously, there's still a lot to do, but we have moved produce to No. 1 on the list of products shipped to our food banks,'' Hofer said. ''It's a huge stride in just a very few years.''
Nutrition information is also packaged with the food in the Bootheel Food Bank boxes, Hinds noted. The Bootheel Food Bank serves food to area pantries, food kitchens and senior centers.
But as Johnson pointed out: "The need for volunteers and the number of people who need help continues to grow."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.