Extreme Couponer Fights Childhood Hunger

In 2010, Rhonda Smith used her bargain shopping skills to found Alive Ministries, Inc., an organization that partners with the Atlanta Community Food Bank to provide food for hungry children in Cobb County through food pantries in county schools. In addition to receiving food from ACFB, she has an ingenious method for sourcing high volumes of the food she distributes.

“All of this really started because I was an extreme couponer. I was couponing for my family, and it’s pretty amazing what you can get for free or almost free,” said Smith. “I was working at my church and people came in every day asking for food and rent and electricity, and here I was stockpiling food at home. I thought, why not use the same concept to help people in need?”

Smith collects coupon inserts and uses them to purchase food and toiletries to distribute to children in need.

“We partner with schools in Cobb County providing food and toiletries to kids in need,” said Smith. “The social workers identify kids in crisis and we serve them on a monthly basis throughout the year, including the summer months. Kids are the most innocent people in our society. Regardless of the circumstances they were born into, it’s not the child’s fault. We founded so that we can be there to provide food and hope for kids. It’s hard to learn when you’re hungry. We wanted to partner with schools so that we could give kids the opportunity to better themselves.”

Alive Ministries receives approximately 200 donated coupon inserts every week. With those inserts, the organization prepares shopping lists with the best deals, informing volunteers exactly what to buy. These volunteers then shop and donate everything they purchase back to the food pantry. Volunteers spend, on average, six dollars.

“My driver drops the shopping lists off, and he picks up whatever food they purchased from the week before,” said Smith. “Instead of us doing all the coupon shopping ourselves, we’re empowering the community to shop on our behalf.”

Alive Ministries distributes approximately 9,000 items per month. All donated coupons are kept in chronological order to maintain organization. Any expired coupons are sent overseas to members of the military, who can use coupons for up to six months after their expiration dates. That additional step ensures that resources are not wasted.

Smith recognizes that Alive Ministries cannot possibly help all children in need, so she says she has turned her focus to the children that need it the most.

“We target homeless children, children that have been abandoned by their parents, children with parents with life-altering illnesses, and in some cases the children themselves will have life-altering illnesses,” Smith said. “We also target special needs families that are in poverty and recently unemployed families.”

Alive Ministries initially considered expanding into other counties, but decided to remain focused on Cobb.

“The majority of our focus is in the southern portion of Cobb county because that’s where the highest concentration of children in poverty is located,” Smith said.

Alive Ministries currently has three employees. Smith is the only full-time staff member, but she employees a part-time driver and an administrator. The organization relies heavily on volunteers. “I come from a corporate, banking background,” said Smith. “I’ve had experience with numbers and finances, but I’m still learning the best ways to manage a food pantry. The Food Bank has been very helpful.”

Alive Ministries began partnering with ACFB in the end of 2013. Through ACFB, Alive Ministries is able to obtain high-demand food items that aren’t always available through couponing, like peanut butter and tuna, for discounted prices. Alive Ministries also takes advantage of educational components ACFB offers, like workshops and networking events.

“As we’ve grown, we knew at some point if we wanted to serve more people we would have to bring out more partners,” said Smith. “The Food Bank partnership is really a beautiful marriage in that I can get things from couponing that I can’t get from the Food Bank, and I can get products from the Food Bank that I can’t get through couponing.”

The Georgia Nutrition Assistance Program (GNAP) has had a large impact on Alive Ministries. GNAP serves low income families with children, and is only available through ACFB to agencies that serve a large percentage of children. Most nutritional and difficult to obtain foods that Alive Ministries provides come through GNAP.

“The majority of food we receive from the Food Bank is through GNAP,” said Smith. “For us, it is huge. The healthier the food we can get and provide to our families, obviously the more nutritional value the kids have, the better. It’s better for their overall health and learning.”

As of January 2014, Alive Ministries had served over 8,000 children. Just four years ago, it served one school, Birney Elementary School, out of Smith’s dining room. In September 2010, it distributed to nine families. Now, it distributes to 170 families at 11 schools. By the end of the 2014-2015 school year, Smith hopes to serve 215 families at 15 schools. Children are the main focus of Alive Ministries.

For more information on Alive Ministries, visit their website.