Interview with Torrey Bates and Rebecca Phillips of For The Kingdom
Words by Heidi Rupke
Every neighborhood has hidden stories. Tucked off a busy road in Raleigh, a suburb of Memphis, is a 100-acre property that serves as a camp for local kids who might not be able to spend money to go away to camp. This site used to be a meeting place for Black and White recording artists for Stax Records who needed a place to hang out “off the grid.” In 2021, For The Kingdom is looking to create a space with a thriving food economy inside one of the most severe food deserts in the region.
For The Kingdom was already plugged into its Raleigh neighborhood through literacy, sports, job training, and outdoor programs. Last year, the pandemic forced its executive director Torrey Bates, along with his board and staff, to assess what additional needs might be right under their noses. One of them was food insecurity.
“Not eating is more of a tradition than eating around here. We knew there was an acute need in the apartment complex behind our property,” says Torrey.
Research backs up Torrey’s lived experience. The food insecurity rate in Memphis and Shelby County is more than 20%. More than 40% of Memphis’s children live in poverty. With further economic and social disruption looming, For The Kingdom started packing brown bag lunches—sandwich, chips, drink and cookie—and distributing them on street corners in March 2020. They made signs, they played music, they drove through neighborhoods with bullhorns announcing, “Free food!” The food they had prepared was gone in 30 minutes.
Over the next few months, they refined their program. They brought on three more chefs who started preparing hot meals in the camp’s commercial kitchen. They connected with daycare centers and senior living communities for distribution. They created an app for a smoother pick-up process. They partnered with the USDA to establish a steady funding stream, expanding the strong financial base they had already built with donors. Today, For The Kingdom serves between 680 and 750 hot meals per day.
While providing food for hungry neighbors, For The Kingdom also works to minimize food waste so they can stretch their resources and send food to people rather than landfills.
As in any foodservice operation, Executive Chef Rebecca Phillips is always checking last month’s numbers to determine what to order this month without overages. For The Kingdom also incorporates food rescued from grocery stores and delivered by Resource Redistribution Ministries into their offerings. Rebecca plans menus that maximize leftovers. Extra baked chicken breast on Tuesday becomes chicken alfredo on Wednesday. Plain rice that was a side dish on Thursday is fried rice on Friday. When the chefs cut fresh bell peppers, they make sure to use the top and bottom of the pepper, not just the sides. Rebecca and her team have recently switched away from foam packaging to recyclable and compostable products. Any hot meals that aren’t picked up are brought to parks, low-cost hotels, or other places where Torrey and Rebecca know that hungry people will be.
“We have a transient community so there will always be someone who needs a hot meal,” says Torrey.
Torrey considers their Feed the Block ministry as it now operates—free meals for children and seniors with low-cost options for others; everyone welcome—as merely plugging the dam on the raging problem of food insecurity. He’s looking to nearby projects like Girls Inc.’s urban farm and a future on-site Exodus marketplace to bring fresh food and groceries to the 38128 zip code more sustainably. These additional projects will offer more opportunities for skills training, job development, and holistic food practices like composting. Through its programming, For The Kingdom Staff will prioritize the relationships and divine love behind the food in whatever ways they can. Sometimes the difference is shown in small things, like a garnish of black and white sesame seeds and green onions on orange chicken.
“People eat with their eyes first,” says Rebecca. “Not a lot of people take the time and effort to make food look good here. That garnish shows them that we put a little extra love in their meal.”