KINGSPORT — Hunger First has seen quite a bit of activity in recent weeks. Its director was arrested, a protest was held in his support, and there’s been an increased police presence along Myrtle and Oak streets in response to neighbors’ concerns.
People have spoken out on social media in support of Hunger First; others have come before the Board of Mayor and Aldermen thanking the police for their efforts. There is much passion on both sides.
Kingsport resident Sara Buchanan reached out to the Times News last week in an effort to set the record straight about Hunger First, its mission and what the organization does for the community. Buchanan and her husband, Jeremiah Maurer, own the building at the corner of Myrtle and Oak that houses Hunger First.
“I’ve been looking at social media, and I think there’s some misconceptions about the organization, who supports it and what the mission is,” Buchanan said. “This organization is not new. The problems it’s trying to address are not new. Hunger First is not one person or a building or a place. It’s more of a movement to help our fellow neighbor.”
ABOUT HUNGER FIRST
Hunger First is a no-questions-asked, free food pantry and clothing store founded in 1996 by Cindy Risk. When Risk passed away in 2014 as the result of a car wreck, her son Michael Gillis took over the organization. According to its website, Hunger First aims to educate and empower the low income, no income, and the homeless.
It is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that relies solely on donations and volunteers in order to operate and takes no money or grants from the government, Buchanan said.
“(Hunger First) has a broad array of supporters from here in town, and it would probably surprise you who they are,” Buchanan said. “Everyone from church ladies, to business owners to people who work for nonprofits. Missionaries from 22 different states come to Hunger First every summer to help the organization.”
Buchanan added that Hunger First’s mission is not only to help homeless people, but also to focus on people who live in poverty. Home- lessness is just a fraction of what the mission is, she said.
COMING BACK TO KINGSPORT
Buchanan, a Dobyns-Bennett High School graduate, moved back to Kingsport earlier this year after living abroad the past 20 years as a diplomat with the State Department.
She and her husband purchased the Hunger First building in March 2018 to prevent the organization from being evicted.
“I left my job to come back to Kingsport because I wanted to help Hunger First,” Buchanan said. “I feel like, as a Christian, this is what I should be doing with my life, to be sure that as we are commanded to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and help the people who are poor and recognizing Christ in every human being.”
The Kingsport Police Department in recent weeks has increased its presence around the Hunger First property, issuing citations to jaywalkers and some people sleeping underneath the awning of the building.
Police say they’ve received nearly 2,000 calls for service within a 750-foot radius of the Myrtle and Oak intersection during the past three years.
Complaints have included aggressive panhandling, public indecency, littering, criminal trespassing, blocking sidewalks and illegal drug activity.
Buchanan said she believes the issuing of jaywalking tickets has been “unbalanced” and adds that Hunger First has not attracted a criminal element to that part of town, especially since the organization was closed for months during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“If they close, the problem is not going to go away. It’s going to get worse,” Buchanan said. “What’s happening in Kingsport is happening all over the United States, and we really have to show more compassion right now towards our fellow man.”