Merchants, Christian Services provide over a million pounds of food in 30 years.

A 30-year-long partnership between Merchants Foodservice, a broadline foodservice distributor headquartered in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and Christian Services Inc., a charitable ministry offering multiple services in Hattiesburg, continues to bear fruit for both organizations.

Throughout the life of the partnership, Merchants has donated more than a million pounds of bulk goods, a building and several pieces of equipment. Since 2010 alone, the foodservice distributor has donated 706,000 pounds of goods.

Those donations equal 15.5 percent of all food received, used and distributed by the ministry and are essential to daily operations, said Bill Prout, who co-founded Christian Services in January 1986 alongside his wife, Cookie.

During its first months of operation, the ministry was feeding 45 people. Three decades later, the ministry is serving nearly 800 meals per day for a 2015 total of more than 185,000 served meals. Since 2010, the ministry has served nearly 927,000 meals.

The partnership started when the ministry’s food banks ran empty in late 1986.

“When we were empty, I reached out to Johnny Tatum and his brother Bobby [the chairman of the Merchants Board of Directors] and told them of our need,” said Bill Prout. “That initial visit created a source of food that is still running 30 years later.”

The food donations include dry, refrigerated and frozen goods along with multiple types of paper products. These items help supply the ministry’s three food programs, including Meals on Wheels for the homebound; the in-house dining room; and Operation Compassion, a mobile feeding unit serving remote low-income areas.

“The donations are staples – everything from meats to canned goods to juices to paper products – that are needed to serve 700 to 800 meals per day,” said Jim Prout, Bill and Cookie’s son and the ministry’s executive director. “Without them, we could not serve these meals.”

In addition to donating food products, Merchants also donated the Christian Services Center, the ministry’s E. Second St. headquarters, in 1994. The 30,000-square-foot facility, which once housed the Merchants Pine Burr Packing Co., now houses the ministry’s administrative offices, dining room, soup kitchen, storage facilities and secondhand shop.

“Don Suber [Merchants president from 1988–2005] called me one day and asked me if we could use the building,” said Bill Prout. “It filled a huge void for us and is just another way we’ve benefited from the kindness of our friends at Merchants.”

Merchants has also donated two semi-trailer trucks, which help the ministry deliver goods to 25 charitable organizations in Mississippi and surrounding states as part of its Abundant Harvest service. The service ensures that any donations that cannot be used at Christian Services are not wasted but are instead shared with other organizations with similar goals.

Andy Mercier, Merchants president and CEO, said the partnership has been great for both parties.

“For us, this is about being a good and responsible neighbor,” he said. “Our corporate office is less than two miles away from the Christian Services headquarters. We know the needs of the community and we know that Christian Services is a fantastic partner in meeting those needs. We also have strong relationships in the food industry that allow us to help our neighbors.”

Bill Prout said one constant throughout the ministry’s 30 years of service has always been the generosity of Merchants.

“We have always been able to depend on Merchants,” he said. “We have been truly blessed.”