Cheryl “Action” Jackson is the founder of Minnie’s Food Pantry in Plano. Over the last 10 years, Minnie’s Food Pantry has served over 10 million meals in North Texas and Cheryl has gained national recognition through her appearances on The Oprah Winfrey Show and The Ellen DeGeneres Show.
Recently, Cheryl brought Oprah Winfrey to Texas for Minnie’s annual Feed Just One gala and raised over $1.3 million in just a few hours.
Since her mother’s death in 2015, Cheryl Jackson has been dwelling on the walks they used to take around her old house in Plano. Often, Cheryl and Minnie Ewing, who rose at four in the morning to pray, took long walks around her neighborhood. Sometimes Minnie would shoot Cheryl a certain kind of look.
“Do you have it?” she’d ask intently. “I need to know that you got it. Cheryl, do you have it?” Minnie Ewing was a pastor, a woman of deep faith. Once, Cheryl remembers her pausing in the middle of her Sunday sermon. “Cheryl,” she said. “Get my purse.” There was a family visiting the church for the first time and Minnie walked over to them. She took everything out of her purse, neatly tucked bills and coins, and offered it to them. “I just feel like you need this.”
She returned to the podium, looked out over her congregation and said, “If I were to die today, I would want my headstone to read, ‘She loved God and she loved God’s people.’”
Minnie died that following Wednesday. While not many people in Plano knew her personally, most are familiar with her legacy, a food pantry founded by Cheryl “Action” Jackson in her mother’s name. Through Minnie’s Food Pantry, Cheryl is a stubborn yet charismatic voice for hungry people in Plano and beyond.
“You know why I don’t stop?” she says, smiling. “When I was a little girl, my father once told me he’d give me everything I wanted because he knew I’d never give up asking. So I figured if it worked on my dad, I’d try it on everyone.”
Since she founded the pantry ten years ago, Cheryl has become known as a force of nature for her cause, with a particular brand of charm that can open any door. She doesn’t take no for an answer; but she’s so engaging about it and her cause is so righteous, no one seems to mind.
“We’re in the business of feeding the hungry,” she tells me one day in her office, where family pictures take up the walls, along with a couple of letters from her hero, Oprah Winfrey. “We are a leading force in destroying the myth that there are no hungry people in Plano. If you’re hungry, you aren’t just a number and we are here for you. ”
Cheryl counts her sparse free time by minutes and seconds. There’s not much to spare for small talk. Cheryl comes into a conversation with the facts of hunger ready on the tip of her tongue, as well as a few of her favorite soundbites. Cheryl is never scripted. But she’s always prepared.
In some ways, the face of Plano has evolved dramatically in the ten years Minnie’s Food Pantry has been feeding the hungry. But in Cheryl’s eyes, nothing has changed. “Plano looks like a lot of people with smiling faces that were, for lack of a better word, pretending,” she explains. “They don’t want people to know that they aren’t doing as good as their house makes it look like they’re doing. There’s one lady recently who I delivered food to. She lived in a five-bedroom home with three children. She also happened to be my neighbor. She’d lost her job and her husband wasn’t working. I told her, ‘I run a food pantry. I won’t let my neighbor go hungry.’ Across the city, that’s the story.”
However, Cheryl adds, whenever she asks for support, her supporters go above and beyond. “If we know there’s a need, we will rise to the occasion. Women relate to each other heart to heart. We don’t want our children to be hungry so when we hear someone else’s child is hungry, we gather. We become a tribe. That was true ten years ago and it’s true now.”
The people who rely on Minnie’s recognize that it’s a special place. Some drive upwards of an hour just to come to Minnie’s because the quality of the food is unique, even among other food pantries.
“Giving people something is better than nothing. But there should be some type of criteria in my mind,” Cheryl states. “If I’m going to give my brother a meal, I should give him a meal. I need to give fruit, salad, vegetables—stuff that helps the whole man. If there’s another pantry like Minnie’s, I haven’t seen it.”
Minnie’s Food Pantry has distributed over 10 million meals in North Texas. The pantry has achieved national recognition in large part thanks to Cheryl and the way she runs it, giving people fresh meat, produce and bread—real food. She was interviewed by Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres as well; Ellen gave the pantry a car. Her cause has attracted celebrity supporters, from NFL hall of famer Emmitt Smith to R&B singers like Kenny Lattimore and actress Brely Evans. All of them were in attendance at Minnie’s 2018 Feed Just One Gala, their biggest annual fundraiser. So was Oprah Winfrey.
Cheryl describes Oprah as something between an aunt and a hero. Growing up, there were two answers to most problems: a look at the Bible, or time spent learning from Oprah on TV. Soon after founding Minnie’s, Cheryl was invited to appear on The Oprah Winfrey Show and since then Cheryl has persistently kept in contact with her, asking her to attend the annual gala. “See, I knew if I could get Oprah to the gala, everyone would talk about Oprah but synonymously we’d have to talk about Minnie’s. Now we’re talking food, now we’re talking hunger, now we’re talking change,” she explains.
For eight years she told the world that Oprah would come to Texas. For eight years, Oprah politely turned her down. Cheryl, who saved all of their correspondences, shows me a text chain regarding the 2014 gala.
“I make no commitments to 2014 beyond what I’ve already done. I recognize how important your organization is to you and I admire that,” Oprah wrote, to which Cheryl replied: “Thank you; was that a definite no or a maybe?”
Looking back, Cheryl bursts out laughing. “Oh, I’ve got to send her a picture of that.”
In May 2015, Cheryl lost her mother, kickstarting one of the longest periods of self-reflection and grief she has ever experienced. “My mother left me journals,” she recalls. “You know, [people] aren’t made to bear our burdens alone. When I read those journals I saw her, this very strong woman, and I realized that behind closed doors she was hurting. I read about days I remembered, when I went over and she was smiling, and I told her all of my problems. But she was hurting because my dad had died, and my step-father had died, and I didn’t see it.” Without her mother, Cheryl felt her bond with Oprah more strongly than ever. She was the last person whose endorsement truly mattered to her.
“This year, Oprah said, ‘What is your ask of me?’ And I replied, ‘I need you to come to Texas. Every year I say ‘Oprah is coming’ and every year they laugh at me. I’m tired of them laughing.’” Thinking about it, tears come to her eyes. “I needed everyone to understand that I’ve been doing what my teacher taught me.” She pauses to wipe carefully under her eye. “Don’t mistake my tears for weakness. My tears free me of my pain. I knew she was supposed to come. It took her eight years to figure it out.”
April 2018, Oprah Winfrey came to Plano for the Feed Just One Gala. “I had two months to put that event together. My staff of powerful women—Zoya, Erica, Lynette—rose to the occasion. I felt like I was sitting in the middle of a miracle,” Cheryl recalls.
Oprah spoke about Cheryl’s persistence with admiration and affection. “That’s somebody worth lifting up. That’s why I chose to be here tonight and say ‘yes’ to Cheryl,” she said. “She’s earned it. It is no easy thing to start as one and build to 16,000 volunteers.” She called on everyone at the gala to join her onstage and together, pledge enough money to match her own $250,000 donation. Pledges combined reached $1.3 million, which will allow Minnie’s to partner with another location so they can move into food deserts, closer to people who can’t make the journey to Minnie’s. They can hire more staff members, expand their programs and even look into other states.
As vital as those pledges were, there’s a world of difference between a promise and cold, hard, usable cash. Every day since, Cheryl has been consumed by actually getting that $1.3 million.
“Everyone who promised something on that stage, I’m serving them all notice. I hounded Oprah for eight years and she owed me nothing,” Cheryl says. “I’m coming after you for what you’ve promised you’d do.” Though she rarely shows it and though she’s at the top of her game, Cheryl isn’t immune to stress.
“I am tired. It wears on my body, my mind, my heart …” She trails off briefly. “There was a point in my life where I wouldn’t have told anyone that.” Cheryl is the face of Minnie’s, working without time off. When her mother was alive, she used to implore Cheryl to just close the pantry: “You’re killing yourself. Don’t do this for me. It’s too much for you. But Cheryl’s phone always rings and someone on the line always needs her help.
Sometimes, on her most exhausting days, Cheryl finds a chair in the pantry’s front room, where people wait for their food. She chats with the young mother with unbrushed hair and four children to corral, or the elderly set of Hispanic ladies who drive up from Dallas together whenever they have the strength to make the trip. Or she camps out in the corner and quietly observes her volunteers greeting each person, showing them a seat and pointing out the complimentary coffee station. She asks herself what would happen to them if she stopped.
“They’d find another place but it would be nothing like this.” She offers a small smile. “I’ll be 50 this year, so I’ll be as transparent as I can for the women who are on the same journey I’ve traveled. While this looks incredible—and it is—there’s a price that you pay for it. It’s burning the midnight candle to the next day, to the next day. It’s my husband telling me it’s time to rest.” Her father died at 58; she watched her mother work until she was utterly spent. In her heart, Cheryl knows that she’s doing the same thing.
“The truth of the matter is, I’m getting old. But I can’t break until I get that $1.3 million.”
Lately, Cheryl has been considering that mysterious question her mother used to ask her on their walks: “Do you have it?”
The Ewing family came to Plano from South Dallas, where they owned a little convenience store in their neighborhood. Her grandmother was the ice cream lady and Cheryl spent hours with her, riding around in the truck and serving ice cream, often for free. Her grandmother never turned a profit. “It all comes back to you,” she said peacefully, if Cheryl ever questioned her.
“That’s the place my mom and my grandmother lived their faith. The land where history was made for me,” Cheryl says.
When she talks about herself, she focuses on the needs of the food pantry and the women who taught her how to live a successful life. She dwells on those walks with her mother, and all the hours she spent “sitting at the feet of wisdom,” looking to her mother, her grandmother and Oprah for guidance. These days, whenever her daughters come to her for advice and she finds herself sitting in the mentor’s seat, she quietly marvels at how things have changed.
“I’m at a place of peace I haven’t had in a long time. I have clarity. If I were to die today, I want my mom to know I love God and I love God’s people. Now I feel, in my final days—” She breaks off laughing. “And I don’t know why I’m saying ‘final days’. But if these are my final days, then I want to spend them pouring into people. Remember where you came from and who you were before you were successful. Find someone who is where you were and bring them along with you. So in the next ten years, I want to do more women’s empowerment.”
At her mother’s request, Cheryl used to lead a women’s empowerment class called Leaving a Legacy. These days, Cheryl has edited it in her mind into Living a Legacy.
“You need to live your legacy so that people see it in you and want to be like you,” she explains. “I want to talk to powerful women. I want them to come to me, to other women and speak about their lives. I think as women, we need that. We work and our husbands work, but when our work is done, we are still taking care of our kids and our families. We need camaraderie. We need to know who we are and we need to love each other.
“I challenge women to look around, look at the woman next to you,” she adds. “We’re all out for success, and we can help each other achieve it.”
Recently, Cheryl went back to the neighborhood where she grew up. The streets have aged and fallen into disrepair. Most of the houses that she remembers passing in the ice cream truck have turned into forgotten, empty shells in a community gone quiet. But she noticed that her mother’s old house was the only one on the street that wasn’t condemned. To Cheryl, that’s a sign.
“That community needs help. We already met with the city to talk about replotting the land and zoning it for commercial use,” she says. “I want to give them food—’give them a fish.’ I want to turn her house into a facility where we can offer classes, teach job skills, host training days with our corporate partners—‘teach them to fish.’ If you’re hungry, we are here for you. If you want to better your life, we are here for you.” At the Feed Just One Gala, one of the attendants pledged to help Cheryl renovate her mother’s old house free of charge.
“Mom, I got it,” Cheryl says softly. “It took me some time, you know? But I got it. And I want to teach other women so that they have it too until we all get it and we all go up together.”
Cheryl seems to have peace in the idea of returning to her roots. While the mission of Minnie’s Food Pantry came to life in Plano, this neighborhood of South Dallas was her training ground, where she first learned how to feed people at her grandmother’s side. It feels right to her that soon she’ll be feeding them again and teaching others to do the same.
Originally published in Plano Profile’s June 2018 issue under the title “In the Middle of a Miracle”