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The Hungry Among Us

Alabama Childhood Food Solutions feeds more than 800 hungry families per month and 2,100 kids per week

By the end of 2008, Jim and Linda Jones had been on 25 short-term missions trips on five continents. Primarily evangelistic and medical-focused trips, as the Jones returned home to Sylacauga, Alabama, they talked about their keen awareness of one thing: hunger.

“We saw hunger everywhere we went,” Jim said, whose last trip was to Africa. “God put it on our hearts that we had hungry people right here in our neighborhood. With the money it took to go to Africa, we could instead spend that on families and kids right here in Alabama.”

Currently in Alabama, Jim said that 1 in 3 children are hungry. It is the fifth poorest state in America, and 19 percent of the families do not have sufficient food. According to Feeding America, hunger has worsened due to the COVID-19 pandemic with more than 50 million people throughout the country experiencing food insecurity—defined as not knowing when or where another meal will come from—and sadly this status currently includes 17 million children.

Even as the duo learned these staggering statistics, Linda said they didn’t feel capable of launching a project that big—until they had a literal finger pointed at them.

A few weeks after their return from Africa, they sat in a church in Cincinnati, Ohio, where they were visiting their daughter-in-law. They listened to Tony Fairhead speak about Childhood Food Solutions, his nonprofit backpack food ministry to kids.

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“Out of the whole crowd, he looked right at Jim and I and said, ‘You can do this, too.’” Linda said. Fairhead gave them a vision for the first few practical steps to take. “We did not have any more excuses.”

Within a year, the Jones’ launched Alabama Childhood Food Solutions (ACFS). But even before their nonprofit status was legalized, Jim and Linda were giving away food from their own pantry. They started by curating 40 bags of food—Ramen noodles, crackers, a Nutri-grain bar, potato chips, fruit, and dessert in each one—then driving to a local apartment complex and beeping their horn. That day they were 10 bags short. Fifty kids came running.

After two weekends of giving out bags of food, the local public school in Sylacauga invited the Jones in for a meeting. The teachers said they often used their salaries to feed the hungry children at school. This started a beautiful relationship feeding children through the schools, Linda said.

“The third week we went to the school, the need was 100 bags and the fifth or sixth week it was up to 500,” Jim said. “We went on to feed 1,000 kids in just a couple months.”

Within 2 years, Jim and Linda were delivering 2,200 bags per week.

Funding for ACFS became an issue, so the Jones began to partner with their local church and gathered a team of volunteers. Volunteers like Caitlyn, a high school student who has seen hunger first-hand since elementary school. In fourth-grade, she said she noticed a classmate went home every day hungry. Caitlyn started sneaking food from her house to give to her classmate.

“It was one of those eye-opening experiences. Even though I was so young, I was able to see hunger,” Caitlyn said. “I knew it was something I wanted to work on stopping.”

Caitlyn now recruits a group of friends who pack food necessities at the warehouse of ACFS each week. The team of teenagers then discreetly place the food bags in the lockers of fellow students identified as food insecure.

The bags taken home on the weekends are sometimes all the food the students have, Jim said. This was the case for two boys who were discovered by the police at a nearby meth house six years ago. Pam Weathers, who works in the probate office at the local courthouse, caught wind of the need, so she and her husband took them in that night.

“It was scary. They were 8 and 9 and did not weigh 60 pounds. They were almost bent over from malnutrition,” Pam said. “They had eaten almost anything they could find to survive—things such as salt.” For the year and a half before the police found them, the boys had survived exclusively on meals at school and the food bags ACFS had sent home.

“They still have food insecurities,” said Pam, who has since adopted the boys. “They are now 14 and 15 and have grown up thriving, she said. “In the beginning, I found candy hidden in the bird house because they had a fear of not having food.”

Currently, ACFS has a volunteer base of more than 500. Over the years, as their base of needy families has grown, ACFS feeds not just the 2,100 kids per week but 800 families per month. When COVID hit, they never stopped giving out food, but created a contactless drive-thru system for grocery pickup. Each family receives 80 pounds of food that meant to last more than a week, Linda said. In addition, the county schools sent buses to pick up food bags and deliver them to needy neighborhoods.

Linda’s favorite part of her job, as co-founder and treasurer, is the face-to-face (currently masked) interactions with clients. As they drive through, she asks each person how they are doing and how she can pray for them and delivers a devotional written by her and Jim.

“I talk to almost every car that comes through and ask them what is going on with them. I couldn’t say that I have 5 people in 12 years who don’t want you to pray with them. Almost everyone wants to know Jesus Christ,” Linda said.

While they receive no state funding, Jim has worked full time as president of the board of ACFS to raise funds. Since its launching, 37 churches now support ACFS, as well as grants given from Walmart, Publix charities as well as food donations from Sprouts Farmers Market, Piggly Wiggly, Dunkin Donuts nationwide, Feeding America and hundreds of individual donations. Big insurance companies also donate extras on a regular basis, Jim said.

“God provides is all I can say,” Jim said.

The ethnic diversity of the people they serve is 53 percent black, 45 percent white, 1 percent Hispanic and 1 percent other, Jim said. Currently, they serve nine counties.

ACFS is not what Jim planned to do with the last 12 years of his life. In 2008, prior to their trip to Africa, Jim retired at age 62 due after a small stroke kept him from continuing as a nurse anesthesiologist. He retired to the couple’s farm and bought a boat.

“I thought I would farm and fish and rock in the sunshine in my rocker. That didn’t last nearly as long as I thought.” Jim laughs. “I had no idea I would accomplish anything after the day that I retired. It has been an exciting journey.”

The work of ACFS, while a surprise to both Jim and Linda, was really in their blood. Jim was born and raised on a 30-acre farm in Talladega county, Alabama, where ACFS is located. His parents raised extra food to give to neighbors—corn, beans, tomatoes, and more. They also had a number of cows they used to produce an abundance of milk and butter that they shared.

“I had a basis for sharing with the families around us,” Jim said.

Likewise, Linda lived on a small farm that churned out fresh veggies. She said they gave out as many vegetables as they put up.

“It is easy to recognize hunger, but you can’t see it as you drive down the street,” Jim said.

Currently, Jim and Linda dream of building a space so that ACFS can serve more families. The plan is to build in an industrial park near their current leased warehouse, which is bursting at the seams, Linda said. The new space would allow them to serve 8,000 people on a monthly basis instead of 5,000.  ACFS took in about $1.3-million in donations last year, mostly food donations.  It spent zero dollars on fundraising, and neither Jim nor Linda take a salary from the organization.

“We are so crowded we can hardly move! There are so many boxes and pallets around,” Linda said. It’s not about the numbers but about their willingness to be faithful, the couple said.

Jim, 76 now, said both he and Linda, currently 74, are training their replacements to make sure the work of ACFS goes on. “Being part of childhood food keeps us healthy and keeps our minds clear. We are very thankful for that.”

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