I believe the key to creating great communities starts with one thing.

We have our careers and family lives, but the people who make the biggest impact in a society are the ones who seem to focus on one thing above and beyond their professional path or family life.

I was talking to my son the other day about the people he should admire and respect. I told him that, all too often, the people we put on a pedestal are celebrities who have gained some type of public fame, or business people who have made a lot of money – many of whom never give anything back to their communities. Then I told him about my neighbor, Van Jones.

Van Jones is a former college athlete who operates a couple of after-school daycare centers for kids. Every Sunday morning, Jones spends a few hours picking up trash on a busy two-mile stretch of road in my hometown. Up one side and down the other. No one ever asked him to do it. There are no signs proclaiming his good deeds every week. He just does it because it needs to be done and he feels it’s the right thing to do for his neighborhood. It’s his one thing. I told my son, “That is who we need to put up on a pedestal.”

My town is full of people who have blessed us with their one thing. Larry Doleac was passionate about Little League baseball. He spent decades supporting teams and helping to operate and maintain the ballparks. My hometown of Hattiesburg now has world-class Little League fields because Doleac dedicated so much time and passion into his one thing.

Sara Newton is an architect who had an idea to host a free concert in a park in downtown Hattiesburg. From that idea grew Live at Five, and now the entire community gets to hear live music every Friday night in April and in October. Newton’s one thing brought the entire town together over music eight times a year.

Becky Montague, heard about a town that set up little libraries the size of mailboxes which gave people access to free books. She brought that idea to Hattiesburg and now people are reading free books all over town because she took the initiative to bring her one idea to fruition.

My one thing, Extra Table, started with a simple phone call.

Ten years ago, I received that call from The Edwards Street Fellowship Center, a mission pantry that was feeding 800 families a month. They were completely out of food. They asked if I could help, and I said, “I’d be happy to.” It seemed the best way to get them food would be to call my Sysco food rep and have an order drop-shipped to the agency. Out of that phone call my one thing was born.

Extra Table is a non-profit using business principles. It’s based on the premise of what if every home and business had an extra table where they could feed those in need. I approached Sysco with my idea and asked if they would sell me food at wholesale and deliver it to agencies all across the state. I would raise the money. They didn’t hesitate.

To be honest, I was a little skeptical that there was even a hunger problem in Mississippi. I went on a fact-finding mission across the state and learned quickly there is a huge problem.

Over 670,000 Mississippians suffer from what the government calls “food insecurity.” Over 175,000 of those are kids who eat a school breakfast, a school lunch, and then don’t eat again until the next morning. Over 120,000 are seniors who are – at this moment – trying to figure out if they can pay the light bill or go to the grocery store.

Extra Table was founded on two key principles: 100 percent of the money we raise for food will always go to food, and the food we distribute to agencies will always be healthy food.

Mississippi was number one in food insecurity, but also number one in obesity. Originally, I had a problem reconciling those two. But I learned that people who don’t have enough money to lead and maintain healthy diets live out of convenience stores, drinking cheap sugar-laden beverages and eating junk food.

Our first shipment took place in December 2009, and we haven’t looked back. Today Extra Table ships over 20 tons of healthy food a month to 39 agencies all over Mississippi.

After four decades in the restaurant industry, I ended up in a place I never thought I’d land: six restaurants, two bars, eleven books, thousands of columns, a tour business, and series of television shows.

But that’s all lagniappe. At the end of the day, I believe the purpose of all that was to lead me to my one thing. In a state of almost three million people, just think what the quality of life could be if everyone did just one thing. It doesn’t have to be a big thing. Just one thing. It can be as simple as picking up trash beside the road in your neighborhood every week.

I often ask myself a question: “At the end of the day, do I want to be the guy who fed people filet mignon, or do I want to be the guy who fed people canned tuna?” It’s an easy answer. Canned tuna wins every time.

Robert St. John is a restaurateur, chef and author. Visit him online at robertstjohn.com. Follow him on Twitter @robertstjohn.

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