18 Years of Change and Innovation

By Andrea K. Helms
Director of Communications, Tarrant Area Food Bank

In the early spring of 1998, Tarrant Area Food Bank’s new executive director, Bo Soderbergh, needed someone to issue news releases on local hunger as reported in a national and regional survey commissioned by the national food bank network. My resume crossed his desk, and here I am, 18 years later, retiring from Tarrant Area Food Bank (TAFB). I am retiring with gratitude for having had the opportunity to witness and share with the community the many ways TAFB has developed, and continues to develop, to better serve those struggling with food insecurity and hunger.

Then and Now

To give you an idea of how dramatically Tarrant Area Food Bank has changed over the years, consider these facts:

  • In the early days from 1982 to 1998, all resources were focused solely on collecting and distributing any kind of donated food to partner hunger–relief charities. Now, the focus is more on obtaining the most nutritious foods possible, particularly fresh foods. In addition, TAFB services now include 14 complementary programs ranging from direct feeding programs for children and social services to nutrition education and culinary job training.
  • In Fiscal Year 1998, TAFB distributed, through partner hunger-relief agencies, 10 million meals worth of food of unknown nutritional value. In FY2015, that number was 23.6 million nutritious meals worth of food consisting of protein, fresh as well as canned fruits and vegetables, grains and dairy foods—all of which were distributed through Partner Agencies and traveling pantries.
  • When I came to TAFB, a staff of only 23 employees ran the entire operation. Now, 95 full-time employees and several temporary ones work in food distribution and transportation, programs and administrative support.
Growing Need Changes TAFB

As both the population of TAFB’s 13-county service region and the need for food assistance have grown, TAFB has developed a team of staff dedicated to cultivating partnerships within the food industry in order to increase food donations. We have also had to gradually increase the number of truck drivers picking up and transporting donated food and the number of staff receiving and distributing food in our Distribution Center.

During the years before and after I came to TAFB, food bankers and other social services professionals were gaining a better understanding of the factors that push households into food insecurity and hunger. It became apparent that new methods of distributing food, as well as providing services supporting food assistance, could help families and individuals improve their nutrition and their chances of moving from poverty and hunger to financial and food security.

In the same year I joined the staff, TAFB began developing its first alternative method of distributing food—meals served to children after school in their low-income neighborhoods. More child feeding programs followed, including BackPacks for Kids, Summer Meals for Kids, SummerPacks for Kids and In-School Snacks.

Innovation and Growth

Change and innovation came to define Tarrant Area Food Bank. I had the privilege of informing the news media and the community about the first and subsequent TAFB programs developed to supplement our core program of food distribution to Partner Agencies. These new programs included, among others, Food for Kids programs (beginning in 1998), nutrition education through Share Our Strength’s Cooking Matters® curriculum (2007), the Community Kitchen culinary job training program (2007), the first Mobile Pantry (2010) and the Farmers Market Nutrition Program (2012) funded by the U.S. and Texas Departments of Agriculture.

Other programs TAFB has developed to assist families and individuals struggling with food insecurity are Garden on the Go, the Community Gardens program that includes a teaching and demonstration garden, and, with U.S. and Texas government human services agencies, Social Services to help families and individuals apply for food assistance, financial assistance and healthcare.

Developing and maintaining these programs has required staff with specialized knowledge and experience in child and adult nutrition, culinary arts, community gardening, teaching and social services. Other talented TAFB staff raise funds, recruit volunteers, handle the finances, maintain our two buildings and keep our IT systems updated and running for this increasingly sophisticated nonprofit business.

My Role

As well as informing the public about TAFB programs, I’ve enjoyed bringing media attention to TAFB fundraising events—Adiós, Hunger! (1998-2007), Empty Bowls (2003-present), Gear Up to End Hunger (2014-present) and food-raising events—Stamp Out Hunger Food Drive (1998-present) and the Canstruction competition and show (1999-present). I’ve also had the privilege of promoting the opening of new facilities—the two-story freezer at 2600 Cullen Street (2004), the Community Kitchen in the Distribution Center (2009) and the Dorothy and Norman M. Kronick Building (2015), which is now home to TAFB’s program and administrative staff. Renovation of TAFB’s Distribution Center is on the horizon as the organization works toward the goal of distributing 42 million nutritious meals by 2020.

Most importantly, I’ve had opportunities to educate reporters and editors about local hunger and to refer news media to our executive director and our Partner Agency directors who have described hunger and food insecurity in TAFB’s service region and why the public’s help is needed.

While I was promoting TAFB through traditional media, entirely new communications platforms were developing on the World Wide Web. By 2000, I was working with a website designer and programmer to build TAFB’s first website. By 2008, college interns in my office were insisting that TAFB should join the social media revolution.

Today, our communications team includes a social media specialist who keeps up TAFB’s profile on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube, a website specialist who keeps tafb.org fresh and ever more responsive and a graphic artist who designs the multitudinous online and print communications. I look forward to seeing the TAFB brand become ever more prominent in the ever-changing and diverse Dallas/Fort Worth marketplace.

In the meantime, until I retire June 30, I am continuing to be the liaison to news media while I clean out 18 years of memories stored in my office. I thank everyone at TAFB and in the larger community for making my time at Tarrant Area Food Bank so very fulfilling.