Wisdom//

Feeding Change: An Ode to Volunteers on M.L.K. Day of Service

“Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve.” —Martin Luther King Jr.

By addkm/Shutterstock
By addkm/Shutterstock

“Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve.”

Martin Luther King Jr.

On Monday, people across the country will observe Martin Luther King, Jr. National Day of Service — a moment in time when we can commemorate all the ways people give back and make a positive impact in their communities.

This annual observance honors the life and legacy Martin Luther King, Jr. and the invaluable contributions he made in racial equality. Here’s the story many of us know: In December 1955 in segregated Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks refused to surrender her bus seat to a white passenger. In response to her defiance, community leaders — including Dr. King — organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a protest against the segregated transit system that paved the way for the Civil Rights Movement. 

But what many don’t know is the story of another woman who — literally — fed the movement. Behind the scenes was Georgia Gilmore, a cook, midwife and activist who lent her service by feeding and funding the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Gilmore organized a group of women — the Club From Nowhere — to sell sweet and savory goodies, from sweet potato pies and pound cakes to fried fish sandwiches and pork chops. The hundreds of dollars raised by the club helped fund carpool costs during all 381 days of the protest. 

Food is fuel that we all need to survive, whether we are striving for social change like Georgia Gilmore or simply trying to make a better, healthier life for ourselves and our families. Today, Feeding America’s nationwide network of 200 food banks and 60,000 partner food pantries and meal programs uses food to fuel change that can only be accomplished through the tireless service of volunteers across the country.  

I know this far too well. I served at two Alabama food banks for nearly 11 years. Just last year at the Community Food Bank of Central Alabama, over 2,000 volunteers helped provide 11 million meals to people facing hunger. 

I met volunteers from all walks of life who served in a variety of capacities at the food bank – from our warehouse to our board room. They volunteered their time on weeknights after work. They spent hours in a warehouse inspecting and packaging thousands of pounds of donated foods. They shared their knowledge of nutrition and contributed their expertise to better help the people we serve. Over the summer, they offered taste tests to introduce fruits and vegetables to kids who no longer had access to school programs for regular breakfasts and lunches, and received bags of produce to take home. 

Many people facing hunger have to make tough choices: Do I use my paycheck on groceries or utilities? For medical care or a hot meal? Other people live in areas that have undergone traumatic events, like natural disasters, and are in need of food assistance as they rebuild their homes and their lives.

It’s volunteers, along with the dedicated staff of food banks and food pantries, who help give children, families, college students, seniors, and veterans access to nutritious food in times of hardship. Without this grassroots sense of service, the food bank network across central Alabama and the country would not exist.

On M.L.K. Day of Service — and every day — we celebrate the amazing volunteers who spend their free time helping neighbors in need. Each year, volunteers log more than 100 million hours of donated labor across the Feeding America network. Our supporters — in Birmingham and nationwide — drive our vision of a hunger-free America. 

Through the Feeding America network, we are providing food and hope to more than 40 million people annually. Forty million people who are our neighbors, our coworkers, our classmates and our friends. It has been my privilege to have the opportunity to serve others with others for work that is impactful and real.

As Dr. King once said, “Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve.” Today, I salute the efforts of volunteers who provide a lifetime of service and compassion to their neighbors facing hunger.

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