For many, it’s been a trying twelve months. In a moment, a breath it seems, family members are gone, livelihoods wrecked, careers halted. Those already fighting to make a way have born the brunt, and at times, hope feels hard to come by. But communities can be saved by simple gestures, by people who are willing to orient their hearts and hands to help others.
Mrs. Peggy Baxter is one such individual. When the pandemic hit last March, she recognized certain area seniors would lose access to healthy food. So along with a hard-working team of coordinators and volunteers, she created Nutrition With Heart, a service that provides daily meals, all while helping Black-owned restaurants stay in business.
“I have an advocacy gene,” she says, laughing. “It’s a joke in my family.” While growing up in Greenville’s historic Sterling community, Peggy was inspired by a compassionate relative who was constantly caring for her neighbors. “I said, ‘Whatever she does, I want to do that too.’”
Peggy graduated from Sterling High School and attended Hampton University in Virginia, a prominent Historically Black College & University (HBCU). She returned to Greenville in 1959 to pursue a career in social work, but found they wouldn’t even consider her application. “The job I wanted, they said they weren’t hiring coloreds at the time,” Peggy explains. “So I moved West.”
She and her husband headed to Denver, where she obtained a master of social work degree and began forging a career advocating for others. Peggy spent several decades in the East Bay area of San Francisco, working with children and families in the health arena and serving the community through various nonprofits. In the early 2000s, she ended an outstanding career as a senior administrator at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland, and made the move back home.
Since her return to Greenville, Mrs. Baxter has poured her energies into volunteer and board work with various organizations, like Habitat for Humanity, New Horizon Family Health Services, the American Cancer Society, and Long Branch Baptist Church. So when the pandemic hit, causing increased food insecurity for elderly residents, she was in the perfect position to help.
“We’ve got this big problem,” Peggy says. “There are people out there who don’t have transportation or quality, fresh good food. . . . [I asked] What can I do? What do I know? How can I serve? That’s what got me to feeding seniors and keeping restaurants viable and their employees employed.”
Peggy started making calls, and it didn’t take long for others to recognize her vision. Long Branch Baptist Church and Upstate Circle of Friends, a nonprofit that works with at-risk children and their families, hopped on board, and local Black-owned restaurants, which were in need of business due to pandemic restrictions, agreed to prepare meals.
“Everybody I talked to thought it was a great idea,” she says, including local officials, and with funding through the Greenville County CARES Act, Nutrition With Heart was born. Since last September, OJ’s Dinner and Fhinney Buffet #2 have made two fresh meals daily for 125 senior citizens. These “meat-and-twos”—which include baked chicken, green beans, collards, rice, or other soft, non-fried foods—are delivered through a host of volunteers, coordinated by Ruby Coleman and Tonya Craig.
But the program doesn’t just meet a physical need for community members. Peggy emphasizes the toll isolation takes on seniors, and relays a story of one of the volunteers, who waits at the end of the driveway after delivering a meal, just to check-in and say hello. Plans are also in the works to have children accompany parents on drop-offs, to provide participants with a spark of hope.
“We’ve got to pay it forward every opportunity we find,” she says. “It’s about a need and a response to the need.”
Peggy hopes to continue the program through the month of March and beyond, if funding allows. In the meantime, as we continue to endure the trials of this season, let’s all take a page from her book. Because the world sure could use a few more Peggy Baxters.
Photography by Kim Gibson. For more information about Nutrition With Heart, or to volunteer, contact Long Branch Baptist Church at (864) 235-6205.