12 Things I Learned in 12 Months at a Food Bank

On March 27, 2017 I blogged “7 Things I Learned in my First 7 Days at a Food Bank.” It followed my first week in a brand new industry called food banking. In what seemed like the blink of an eye, I found myself at my first anniversary of employment at Tarrant Area Food Bank and I’m so grateful that the transition from disaster relief to hunger relief has been both challenging and gratifying. Today is one of reflection as I process through everything I’ve learned, so I thought it only fitting that on this day I write about 12 things I learned in my first 12 months at a food bank.

1. Tarrant and Dallas counties rank in the Top 10 hungriest counties in the country.

This means that we have some of the highest populations of United States residents, 4.6 million Texans according to the most recent Map the Meal Gap study from Feeding America, who don’t know where their next meal is coming from. To see how your county ranks, you can go to Feeding Texas and enter your ZIP code to see how many folks deal with daily insecurity about how to fill their plates. Here’s what my area looks like in Arlington, Texas:

2. 520,000. That’s how many meals we provide access to each week.

I was stunned when I learned that during my first week and I remain stunned by this number now. We have a multi-channel approach to getting food distributed: 270 food pantries, 65 mobile food pantries, BackPacks for Kids, In-School Snacks, Summer Meals for Kids and so many other creative ways to be sure hungry people get the food they need.

3. We train aspiring chefs to become professionals in the culinary industry.

Under the guidance of Chef Manual VasquezChef Dedrich Flint and Barbara Higbee (Ms. B.), 36 people from all walks of life enter our professional culinary program every year known as the “Community Kitchen”. Here, they embark upon a journey that will undoubtedly change their lives:

  • Before the 2008 national financial meltdown, Joy was making over $100,000 in the finance industry. After being laid off, she struggled for years until she found Tarrant Area Food Bank’s Community Kitchen. Today, she is the kitchen manager for Grady Spears’ acclaimed Horseshoe Hill Cowboy Cafe in the Stockyards.
  • Melyn left the homeless shelter at Union Gospel Mission every morning at the crack of dawn to get to class. She worked hard to perfect her skills and it paid off. Today, she’s a chef at the Hilton Garden Inn in the Medical District.
  • Dalton graduated last semester. He got his start at Pearl Snap Kolaches and now works under the direction of Chef Amol Agarwal at Omni Downtown Fort Worth.

This program transforms lives. If you know an aspiring chef who just needs training and a chance, invite them to attend an upcoming Community Kitchen information session.

4. Nutrition is paramount.

We have a variety of free training classes like Cooking Matters which is geared to help folks make healthy choices on a budget, or monthly free public cooking demonstrations to help folks learn to prepare a healthy vegetable three different ways. Each month features a different vegetable so if you’re interested, check out the Harvest Series calendar.

5. Sustainability is a major objective.

Tarrant Area Food Bank not only provides extensive and free training to gardeners at every level of expertise at our Learning Garden, we also assist scores of other organizations and community leaders in establishing their own gardens around the area. Our goal is to help as many people as possible learn how to grow and sustain their own food supply so that they can provide for themselves and/or their families for the long-term. Whether you have a multi-acre farm or a 50 square foot patio in an urban apartment setting, we have a class for you.

6. We harvest around 2,500 pounds of fresh produce from our Learning Garden.

We take the produce directly to WestAid, a food distribution partner, for delivery to families within hours. When you distribute 25 million pounds of food each year, 2,500 pounds might not seem like much, but for the families who receive this “farm to table” product, their gratitude is all we need to keep growing and harvesting produce for our food pantries.

7. Volunteers make the world go round.

On average, 400 volunteers help Tarrant Area Food Bank each week by sorting, packing and helping to distribute food across our 13 county region. What would we do without volunteers? We dare not ask that question. Whether volunteering together for corporate employee engagement opportunities or individuals coming to serve, it’s always uplifting to see every volunteer shift full and every volunteer having a truly meaningful experience. If you want to come volunteer, it’s easy to do. All of the shifts with dates and times are updated on our Volunteer Services page on our website.

8. One in six people in our local community face hunger.

One in four of them are children. We work around the clock to be sure that everyone has food because we firmly believe that access to nutritious food is a right, not a privilege. And when we realize that 25.5 percent of kids in our local area don’t have food on a consistent basis, it lights a fire in us to help fill empty plates.

9. This isn’t your grandma’s food bank.

Today, food banks are more concerned about healthy, nutritious food as opposed to just getting calories out to the public. The days of dented cans and bags of rice have been replaced by fresh produce, lean proteins and healthy grains. At Tarrant Area Food Bank alone, we distributed just over 26 million nutritious meals last year. Getting healthy food to folks is a top priority.

10. Partners in the grocery store and food manufacturing industries are key to our success.

In one year, I’ve been amazed to see every major grocery store and manufacturer continually support Tarrant Area Food Bank. Whether it’s donating food from stores through our Store Donation Program, sponsoring special events, responding to needs for Hurricane Harvey or advising us on industry changes, their support and advocacy are priceless to our success.

11. Produce is king.

As little as six years ago, 22 percent of products distributed by Tarrant Area Food Bank were fresh. Today, nearly 40 percent, or 13.5 million pounds of 35 million distributed, is fresh.

12. We’ve only just begun.

Looking ahead, there are some exciting objectives that will do more than change how many pounds of food get into the hands of the public. We’ll hopefully be able to change how we view the need for healthy food. Just a few changes we can see in the new future include the completion of our major renovation at our Distribution Center. When complete in late summer, we’ll have three times the refrigeration space and double the freezer space that we have now. That means even more fresh food into the hands of people who need it the most. In two weeks, we’re kicking off a pilot program where we’ll make it a focus to empower people to make healthy food choices and a new program called “PARx”, which meals Produce & Action Prescription Program. These programs will elevate the importance of nutrition for optimal health.

In just my first year, I’m inspired to learn more so I can do more, and I will be keeping you posted on ways you can help too.

Thank you to everyone who’s joined me in this mission to do everything we can to make sure that no one has to go hungry. I’m looking forward to year two!

If you or someone you know needs food, check here to see a list of locations around the area. 

By Anita Foster
Senior Director of Communications and Marketing, Tarrant Area Food Bank

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