The heart of Plano is at the corner of Parker and Independence. It’s Minnie’s Food Pantry, a nationally acclaimed nonprofit that feeds hungry people. Minnie’s has been praised by Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres, and there’s a yearlong wait list for volunteers. However, it started with just one woman and a calling in an affluent city where no one believed there was a hunger problem.
Bold and driven, Cheryl “Action” Jackson, founder of Minnie’s Food Pantry, is a whirlwind whose passion for raising awareness about hunger has inspired and changed lives across the entire country. Her calling goes far beyond simply filling stomachs. It’s about respecting and uplifting everyone who comes through the door.
“Everybody kept laughing when I said I was going to feed hungry people in Plano,” she told me, a sparkle in her eye. “Everybody was like, ‘there’s nobody hungry in Plano.’ And now, over 300,000 people and 4 million meals later, the world sees. That’s the difference: The world sees.”
I met Cheryl “Action” Jackson in her office, surrounded by the various awards that Minnie’s has earned and pictures of Cheryl’s family members. “I’m a very diverse person.” She directed us to the photo on the wall. “See, my sons are black, my daughter is Caucasian, my daughter-in-law is Persian, so I have a very diverse family.”
Her impact on the community is undeniably huge. But beyond the statistics, praise and car Ellen DeGeneres donated, I wanted to know what inspired Cheryl’s generous spirit; I wanted to follow the stream back to the source. Her faith in God is one wellspring, and as we spoke, another became apparent: Her family. It could all be traced, in a way, to a can of corn.
“Years ago, I was at my sister Lynette’s house, and I mentioned I was hungry,” Cheryl recounted. “So she said, ‘okay, go get yourself something to eat.’ I looked and looked in her cabinets, but Lynette had nothing; just one can of corn.” She was both touched and heartbroken by her sister’s generosity.
When she told her husband, he replied, “You know what’s crazy? If I asked Lynette for that can of corn, she’d give it to me. I’m going to ask her for it.”
When Cheryl protested, he proposed that if Lynette gave him her last, he’d trade their last for it. He’d give her their entire savings account, approximately $500. So he called Lynette saying he was hungry and asked for help.
Her response was simple and beautiful: “I’ve got you covered.” “Later, at church, Cheryl and her husband discovered that Lynette had indeed dropped by their mother’s house and given her the can of corn with instructions to bring it to Cheryl.”
“My stomach just dropped,” Cheryl recalled. “During the church service–I was teaching that day–I told the story of my sister giving her last and I ended by saying: ‘What she didn’t know is if she gave us her last, we were going to give her our last. So we gave her $500.’ And then everybody from the congregation started pouring in, and we raised over $1,200 for Lynette. For that one can of corn. The can, I think, is dated June 2001. And we’ve never eaten it.” Visitors can see it in a frame in Cheryl’s headquarters.
The influence of Cheryl’s family doesn’t stop there. Minnie’s Food Pantry is conspicuously not named after Cheryl herself. It is named after her mother, who passed away from a heart attack in 2015.
“When my father died, I wanted to do something to honor my mom.” Cheryl showed me her picture, a kind-eyed woman. “I wanted the world to know what an incredible mom she was. I’m so thankful that I did it because for the first seven years, she was able to see it; from Good Morning America to Steve Harvey Show to The Talk to Entertainment Tonight … She got the chance to see me honor her. And I’m still doing it in her name. It’s what she taught me, giving back and giving your best.” It’s a staggering legacy. Minnie’s Food Pantry is a testament to what a culture of selfless giving could do in one person’s life and in the life of a city.
“When we started, we actually were across the street in a 500-square-foot building with two cans of corn and a whisper from God saying: Feed people and treat them how you wanted to be treated when you needed food.” That’s exactly what she’s done, feeding over 300 people in any given day, providing lessons in budgeting and healthy eating with her local partners and collecting toys and other supplies for children. One of their largest events, the Thanksgiving Giveaway, is set to occur on November 12. There are going to be over 200 volunteers this year and hundreds of families. Last year, the line stretched all the way around the entire building.
“We have everything that you and I would purchase for our families. That’s what we take pride in: Distributing to the family,” Cheryl said, showing me the huge walk-in freezer where steaks and other quality meats are stored after being inspected personally by volunteers to ensure that it meets the high standards of the pantry. “It’s really sad but makes you feel good when someone says ‘my family knows I’ve been to Minnie’s because we’re eating meat tonight.’”
It’s extraordinary, but to Cheryl, it’s just family. “Giving is the fabric of our family,” she said proudly. “My grandmother was the ice cream lady in Oak Cliff, but she never really sold the ice cream. She’d give it away if people didn’t have the money. She always said, ‘it comes back to you.’ And it does. All of it just comes back to you.”
Minnie’s Food Pantry | 3033 W. Parker Rd., #116 Plano, TX 75023 | 972.596.0253 | minniesfoodpantry.org
Originally published in Plano Profile‘s November 2016 issue.