Food for today, hope for tomorrow

Food for today, hope for tomorrow

By Sonia Duggan

After almost 40 years of existence in North Texas, the vision hasn’t changed for one of the area’s largest nonprofits as it strives to meet the needs of the food insecure in a 13-county coverage area spanning 10,000 square miles.

North Texas Food Bank surpassed a long-term goal in a year fueled by unprecedented need as it helped provide access to 96.9 million meals to kids, families and seniors in 2020. 

By utilizing a carefully cultivated network of programs and partner agencies to gather and distribute food in the communities it serves, the goal — reached five years early — was part of NTFB’s Stop Hunger, Build Hope campaign launched in 2015 with a focus on narrowing the hunger gap by distributing 92 million meals by 2025.

North Texas Food Bank President and CEO Trisha Cunningham said at the time the strategic plan was put together they were at around 60 million meals, “but for those who were most food insecure there was a 92 million meal gap.” “To get from 60 to 92 seemed like a huge jump — and it was.”

Part of that plan, says Cunningham, included a new larger, more centrally located facility to better serve the 13 counties “because most people think we’re a big food pantry.” 

It’s come a long way since Liz Minyard, Kathryn Hall, Jo Curtis, and Lorraine Griffin Kircher were inspired to start the food bank in 1982; distributing 400,000 pounds that year.

“We did more than that yesterday,” Cunningham said. “We’re a $200 million operating nonprofit. We have to run it like a business – we have to be able to gather and distribute food into the community.”

Today, an average of 2.4 million pounds of food are distributed each week from the 240,000 square foot Perot Family Campus facility built in 2018 in Plano, off the George Bush Tollway. 

“You’re not going to find a food pantry onsite here,” she said. “We’re a food logistics organization” 

Food is delivered in pallets and distributed by the pound in a facility that rivals any big box distribution center. A warehouse management system helps to minimize touches and move product efficiently — about 70 % each month —from 11,505 coded racks, dry storage and refrigerated space all under one roof — equivalent to four football fields.

“We built this facility with an eye toward growth,” said Erica Yaeger, chief external affairs officer. “So, when we moved in, there were empty racks and we knew that we would eventually fill them, but we weren’t anticipating that until many years down the road.”

Thanks to an influx of pre-COVID and COVID resources, and as the beneficiaries of some of the China trade mitigation, Yaeger said NTFB received a lot of product that ordinarily would have been exported. 

“And we were fortunate because we had the space and we could accommodate and store the food.” 

While the majority of the food is sourced from NTFB’s retail partners, Yaeger said, this year more than ever, they are purchasing food as well.

“The supply chain was totally disrupted at the onset of COVID, meaning that there wasn’t product for retail partners to donate like they traditionally would,” she said. “So, we were having to go out and purchase food at six times the rate of pre-COVID.”

NTFB relies upon food donations; 42% from manufacturers, distributors, retailers, wholesalers and 1,000 food drives annually, 32% from government hunger relief programs and 26% is purchased.

Prior to the pandemic, Yaeger said NTFB was spending about five to six million annually to purchase food, yet now they find themselves competing in an open market with big retail partners.

“Now we’re forecasting $30 million annually on purchases,” she said. 

Logistics are key in moving food in, then back out to NTFB partners. From 5:30 to 6 a.m. the warehouse is busy as its fleet of trucks are being loaded up for the day.

“We do spend a lot of time optimizing truck routes,” Jaeger said. “If the truck is on the road, it’s either picking up food or dropping off or we’re rerouting it to pick up product from a canned food drive.”

NTFB trailers are used to transport maximum amounts of food to a targeted large area such as Grayson County, said Jaeger, using the mobile hub model where “10-plus partner agencies in the area — mostly the small churches — come with their trucks to grab the food from a central location.”

“We work toward efficiency in how we distribute as much food as possible with limited resources,” she said.

Jaeger said this month, brand new container pantries, refrigerated trucks with shelving units on the inside, are set to be deployed in communities that NTFB has determined needs more access.

“We’ll put one of these stocked container pantries in a community, collaborating with one of our partners to manage to see if there really is a need,” she said.

Targeted distribution

“Whenever you’re trying to help somebody grow out of hunger you have to provide food for them — and the process of providing food is way more intricate and much bigger than you would think,” said Kim Morris, Director of Community and Partner Relations. 

Morris describes the food banking industry as more of a multi-step process similar to what big retailers experience, but also involves “the side part of helping these people and working with these partners.”

The partnerships account for about 80% of the food that NTFB distributes through its feeding network of an estimated 230 nonprofit partners in its coverage area.

The director said her team actively looks for opportunities for partnerships in the counties they serve and are “very data driven,” in their approach using numbers from the Census Bureau, Feeding America, and other sources. Data is analyzed down to the zip code level, she said, to determine “where we’re putting food and where we’re not and using targeted distributions or different methods to look for new partners in that area.”

“Because our total goal is to serve the entire community,” she said. 

In 2021, NTFB distributed an estimated 2.4 million pounds of food per week via its feeding network — 93.4% nutritious and almost 29% was a fruit or a vegetable.

Partner pantries are vital to NTFB and are supported in many ways. In Wylie, Amazing Grace Food Pantry has experienced tremendous growth because of its partnership. The nonprofit distributes over 60 tons of food every month to families in Collin and Rockwall counties.

“The relationship between NTFB and AGFP is an absolute partnership,” said pantry director Karen Ellis. “NTFB is our coach. When we have questions, concerns or a project for improvement, they are available.” 

Aside from its feeding network, the remaining 20% of food is dispersed through its direct distribution services: mobile distribution, school programs and senior programs. 

Morris’ team is responsible for the mobile distribution as well as partner management, recruitment, facilitation, growth, planning and much more.

The Mobile Pantry Program distributed more than 13 million meals to neighbors in hard-to-reach areas, with over half being fresh produce and other healthy foods, through 97 unique distribution sites in its service area. 

Morris said part of NTFB’s initiative is to get more produce out into the communities through mobile distributions.

“We’re pushing a lot more fresh produce through that avenue and we’re encouraging our pantries to take as much fresh produce as they can,” she said.

Mobile distribution can include a targeted disaster response where the food bank comes in and provides food to a community, such as the large-scale Fair Park distributions in 2020.

“Our team busted their tails last year,” Morris said, and at one point they were doing three distributions a day with each of the three coordinators going into one location and taking a group of (National) Guard with them.

In February, when the winter storm hit, Morris said they went right back to the height of pandemic action with “massive distributions and lots of targeted locations and long hours.” 

The other type of distribution is the progressive model, said Morris, “and in those instances, we’re actively looking for partners in high needs zip codes who don’t serve food, but would be interested to learn so that they can have a long-term sustainable solution for that specific community.”

Community Lifeline in McKinney is an example of that type of partnership, she said, and when NTFB saw there was a need in Princeton, Community Lifeline volunteered to step in.

“We equipped them with the tools to be able to go and do that,” she said. “Now that they’re on as a community partner, our resources can go to another location. So that’s kind of the goal.”

Meeting the needs

Increasing the number of NTFB run programs to fully meet the needs can look a lot of different ways, says Morris. It could mean adding partners, creating strategic growth plans with existing partners or layering in more of the NTFB services to meet that need in those areas.

One way the food bank helps is by targeting elementary and middle school children on the free and reduced lunch program who often face hunger at home when meals are not available during the weekends.

The Food 4 Kids program provides about 11,000 students with a bag of food in their backpack every week from partner pantries. Of the estimated 69 sites in Collin County, 42 are in Plano ISD.

In Wylie, AGFP coordinates with school counselors to identify chronically hungry kids, says Ellis, then the Food 4 Kids program provides bags full of nutritious, nonperishable, kid-friendly food items to take home each Friday afternoon.

 “Food 4 Kids bags are distributed at Amazing Grace Food Pantry each week to every child when parents pick up their groceries,” Ellis said. “So far this year, there are 3,294 kids getting these kid-friendly food items from AGFP.”

Other programs geared toward children include the School Pantry Program where students and their parents can take home a box of 20-25 pounds of non-perishable items and 15 pounds of fresh produce from a participating school on a monthly basis throughout the school year. Then, in the summer the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) includes the weekly backpacks as well as the monthly boxes provided to School Pantry Program participants. 

The other end of the spectrum focuses on senior citizens. Texas is one of the top five states for the highest rates of food insecurity among senior citizens. The food bank partners with the USDA for its senior food program called the Commodity Supplemental Food Program to provide a “staple box of food with a variety of nutritionally focused items; supplementing the pantry of 8,300 low-income seniors monthly,” says NTFB.

Morris said one of the goals this year is to look even more creatively at what organizations are serving populations in need but are not giving them food as part of that service. 

“Food for today, hope for tomorrow,” she said. “How do we expand those opportunities to provide that hope for tomorrow with additional services?”

Innovate, take action

NTFB is a nonprofit dependent upon volunteers — about 40,000 per year. All their help came to a halt when businesses shut down March 13 due to the pandemic. 

Pre-COVID, the food bank would host 225 volunteers a shift for two shifts per day to pack, sort and package thousands of pounds of food five days a week – Tuesdays through Saturdays. 

“We went from a situation where we had all these volunteers to none,” Cunningham said. 

Food still had to go out the door, she said, yet the method of distribution had to change from “just basic food sorting and delivering of pallets of food to assembling more kits such as the government kits for senior citizens, school pantry boxes and family relief boxes” to accommodate the pantries’ switch to drive-thru distributions.

In the warehouse it was “all hands-on deck” in the early days as staff was recruited to work on the line assembling kits. Cunningham said she had her entire family out doing mobile distributions pretty much all last summer.

One thing they learned, she said, was that “it really helped to spawn innovation because we had to be nimble. We had to figure out how to do this.” 

In addition, they had to do some risk-taking in order to try and make sure that they could meet the needs based upon what was going on,” she said. 

When asked by her board chair at the time what her number one need was, Cunningham said she responded, “We need workers. We need help. We need volunteers.”

The chairman knew about a technology startup called Shiftsmart that partners with companies to do shift work. “And basically, they targeted the service industry that was impacted whenever they shut down all the restaurants,” Cunningham said, “And we hired those workers through Shiftsmart and they were paid via a fund called Get Shift Done.”

Next, NTFB team decided to adopt an idea from California and enlist the aid of the Texas National Guard to help them. Cunningham said she can remember the day they came in and were forming in their platoons on the empty parking lot at 6:30 in the morning. “That is an image that I will never forget,” she said.

Not only was the National Guard utilized in the warehouse for a variety of food packing duties, including pre-packing 15 pound bags of produce, in many instances they were deployed to help at the partner pantries and at the massive Fair Park events.

The guard’s mission was complete as of last month and Cunningham said they are going back to full volunteer mode. “Hopefully we can do it with that,” she said. “We’ll need more volunteers to be able to come out for sure.” 

NTFB has been lobbying to try to get some increased government food, and Cunningham said she thinks it could happen. 

“We’re continuing to advocate for additional government support,” she said, “otherwise it’s going to be very difficult for us to continue to meet the needs.”

As part of the Feeding America network of over 200 food banks across the country, the CEO said it definitely gives them strength. 

The network doesn’t distribute any food said Cunningham. “They’re more like our trade association, and so we can collaboratively work together to try to address the needs across the nation, and a lot of that does have to do with advocacy.”

More voices are needed in the community to stand up for more non-partisan issues, she said, “to make sure that we can have the resources we need, and our partners can have the resources to make sure that we can serve the need.”

Having access to those (extra) resources during COVID meant people didn’t have to go hungry, said Cunningham. “Because obviously we got to (distribute) 126 million meals, and we were able to meet any of the needs that our partners asked us for as far as food goes and our community goes and with our distributions.”

“We don’t want anyone to go hungry in our community again. We want to make sure that we can continue to supply the needs of our

September is Hunger Action Month

How you can help: Give an hour (volunteer at one of our distribution shifts Tue.-Sat. or a mobile distribution: or become a virtual volunteer and spread our message on social media platforms) 

Give a pound (food drive – canned, virtual)

Give a dollar ($1 equals 3 meals)

Donate Peanut Butter – in person or virtual – during September and “Spread the Hope”

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