On a Mission to Fight Hunger

Two local women have made fighting hunger their daily mission for nearly three decades.

Two women working in Feeding the Gulf Coast warehouse
Lavern Sewell and Peggy Lyles // Photos by Elizabeth Gelineau

A pick-up truck maneuvers in reverse, inching its tailgate toward the loading dock, the bed weighed down with bags of food and paper products. From inside the cab, a voice asks, “You work here?” I answer with the negative but add that I’m here to talk with people who do. He hops out of the 4-by-4, and we head toward the entrance, passing a woman from a local church who’s already eyed the gentleman’s donations. “You have toilet paper!” she squeals, not hiding her excitement. The stranger and I trade smiles — he, knowing his Friday morning delivery is helping people in need; me, because I am privy to this sobering moment. 

The world just feels different here. Amidst the whir of forklifts and box trucks, there’s a cheerful din, a sense of camaraderie and hope, a unified resolve. It’s actionable passion with a purpose, and it’s demonstrated by every employee and volunteer on site. No two people understand this innate drive better than Feeding the Gulf Coast’s longest continuous employees, Peggy Lyles and Lavern Sewell. 

“We are the originals!” Peggy says, sidling up to Lavern and throwing an arm around her. “People think we are sisters.” It’s no wonder why, as both sport million-dollar smiles and a sense of humor befitting would-be siblings. “I’ve thought about retiring,” Peggy begins.

“But she doesn’t want to leave me,” Lavern finishes, shooting her coworker of 29 years a playful glare. As true as that may be, the duo knows there’s more to it than that. 

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“I fell in love with the mission,” Peggy says, turning pensive. “Helping people who are having a hard time, it’s my ministry. This is my praying ground.” 

With that, she spreads her arms wide to showcase her mission field, the food bank’s 40,000 square feet of office and warehouse space.

The facility, located in Theodore, serves 24 counties across southern Mississippi, south Alabama and the Florida Panhandle. It’s the third location of the formerly named Bay Area Food Bank, with the first being at Brookley Field in the early 1980s, and the second on Western Drive in Crichton. Peggy remembers, “At our old facility we had no heat or air, and the lights were dim.” A stark contrast to the cavernous, brightly lit building in which the three of us stand today, dwarfed by walls of boxes and shelving four bins high. “When I first started, we didn’t even have a computer; everything was pencil and paper.” 

Smiles and laughter come easy for the two longest continuous employees of Feeding the Gulf Coast.

With nearly three decades’ of knowledge, Peggy and Lavern have seen what works and what doesn’t, in terms of the food bank’s ability to efficiently and effectively provide for communities in need. They served as consultants in the design of the current warehouse, which opened in 2000. 

“It’s set up like a store,” Peggy explains, pointing to shelf signs and labels. “Agency representatives can come in, grab a cart, go up and down the aisles, and take what they need.” Childcare centers, churches and soup kitchens are but a few facilities that rely on the food bank. On average, about 30 agencies come “shop” each week, and when they arrive, Lavern’s is the first face they see. 

“The Lord put me here,” Lavern says, adding this is the only job she’s ever had, though she’s worn several hats since 1992. She first came to the food bank as part of a welfare-to-work program. It wasn’t long before her stellar work ethic was noticed, which led to her being offered a permanent position in the reclamation department. Reclamations, or “rescued foods,” are safe-to-eat, dented boxed or canned products or unspoiled, fresh produce that appears less than perfect. 

“The Lord put me here,” reiterates Lavern, now a distribution center associate, “and I’ve been here ever since.” 

Peggy looks at her friend and smiles. The inventory procurement manager nods, adding, “We are servants. At the end of the day, it’s about knowing we helped keep someone from spending their last dollar on food when they need to spend it on medicine.”  

According to Feeding the Gulf Coast, one out of every five of our neighbors is facing hunger; a third of those are children. Peggy points out the child nutrition aisle, filled with grab-and-go snacks, juices and cereals. 

The clank of a roll-up door and an 18-wheeler’s warning beep draws our attention to the delivery bay. Food comes in by the truckload, and in this case, it’s 26,000 pounds of Honey Nut Cheerios. Peggy says that a portion of the food bank’s commodities come from the government and some are purchased through grant money or operating dollars. 

“But we can’t do without our volunteers and food drives,” Lavern insists. In the short time we’ve been in the warehouse, two groups have shown up to work, sorting food and packing boxes and bags, some of which will find its way into kids’ bookbags as part of the food bank’s backpack program. Once the packages are delivered to schools, teachers can discretely disseminate food to at-risk students. In a recent Feeding the Gulf Coast newsletter, a teacher shared, “I have an 8-year-old student who is homeless. She has a 4-year-old sister. They have stayed many nights in their car. The food that Feeding the Gulf Coast provides my school has helped this family eat meals in their car.” The same teacher went on to say that these children reported using can lids as spoons because they had none. 

Unfortunately, hunger along the Gulf Coast isn’t diminishing. Fortunately, neither is the food bank’s ability to help — disbursement has grown exponentially. In 1990, 2 million pounds of food were distributed; in 2020, 38 million — that’s 33 million meals.

“Oftentimes, if you are comfortable, you think everyone else is,” Peggy says, now entering the commercial kitchen space. “That is not the case. Hunger does not have a face. You can’t look at what I drive or where I live to tell if I’m having a hard time.” Hard times like struggling with the death of a spouse or the loss of a job due to government shutdowns or a pandemic.

We walk further into the warehouse where cold air from the refrigerated room is replaced by icier temperatures in the freezer, snapping us into a playful mood. I take quick stock of the fresh produce, dairy, eggs, meats and entrees while trying to keep up with the two women who are going tit-for-tat with each other. 

“She’s a caring person, but she’s crazy,” Peggy says of Lavern. 

“She’s the one who’s really crazy,” Lavern retorts. “You can ask anyone here.” 

Everyone within earshot laughs. It’s clear that through their 29 years of service, the two coworkers-turned-friends have made a positive impact on this place, in each other’s lives and in the lives of many they will never meet. 

As Feeding the Gulf Coast celebrates its 40th anniversary, its two most devoted employees vow to keep the mission going. 

“Until hunger ends, we won’t stop what we’re doing,” Peggy sums. “I pray that we have been as much a blessing to Feeding the Gulf Coast as they have been to us.”

Feeding the Gulf Coastfeedingthegulfcoast.org

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