Written and Photographed by Barbara King
The rafters are piled high with food in the 75,000 square foot warehouse, ready for distribution throughout East Texas to those in need. Since 1988, the East Texas Food Bank has been the crucial conduit for the distribution of donated and purchased food to more than 200 partner agencies located throughout a 26-county service area.
The statistics may be staggering to some; the East Texas Food Bank provided 18,500 meals to East Texans in 2015, serving 252,900 clients. And taught many people how to qualify for food stamps, and helped them fill out applications. As Chief Executive Officer Dennis Cullinane explains, “Families struggle and can face unexpected bills and hardships. We provide a safety net and assist in helping provide fresh, high quality nutritious foods.” Cullinane added that one of the main issues arising in their mission is the intersection of hunger and health. “Families that are struggling to stretch a dollar tend to gravitate towards inexpensive food items that are rich in calories, but poor in nutritional value. These choices can lead to increased health complications such as obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes.”
The nutritious mix of product lining their shelves comes from a variety of sources including private donations from local and national manufacturers, distributors and grocers, farmers and food drives. The Food Bank works alongside 144 food pantries and 25 soup kitchens or on-site feeding programs.
The food is collected in many shapes and sizes, and a large part of the distribution involves the sorting and packing of anything that arrives in bulk form. On any given day you will see scores of volunteers in the warehouse, sorting, packing, and helping get the orders ready for distribution.
Rosann Blood, a longtime volunteer at the East Texas Food Bank for over 20 years, originally came with a church group, but now comes on her own to help make a difference. “I love to volunteer here and knowing it helps someone else be happy and healthy keeps me coming back.” Today she is bagging large quantities of pasta, and she says every time she comes, she helps with another needed project.
Karolyn Davis, Communications Director says, “Our success is built from the support of the East Texas community through a variety of ways such as time, donations, and food. We have over 10,000 volunteers a year come through our doors to help support our mission for a hunger-free East Texas.” All volunteers are accepted as young as the age of six (with some adult supervision.) Volunteers are welcome Monday through Thursday from 8:30am-12 noon, 1-4:30pm and from 5:30-8:30pm. Fridays are reserved for groups, and all requests can be made on the website with an online application at www.easttexasfoodbank.org.
The Tyler Junior College baseball team of 35 players and 3 coaches recently spent a morning bagging six pallets (40,000 pounds) of rotini pasta for distribution which will feed 33,750 folks in need. Head Baseball Coach Doug Wren said, “The team likes to try to volunteer every January before the season starts. The team learns that life is not all about baseball; it’s a teamwork project that impacts a lot of people in our community in a short amount of time.”
The East Texas Food Bank does so much more to support our community through programs which benefit a wide variety of people. Partnering with the Smith County Sheriff’s Office and the Smith County Agricultural Extension office and the Flint Baptist Church, they operate two gardens on a combined ten acres of land. The Backpack program provides nutritious meals to low-income children who participate in school meal programs but face hunger on the weekends. Thanks to the BackPack program, during the 2014-2015 school year, the East Texas Food Bank provided more than 36,000 meals and nearly 129,000 snacks to needy school age children.
The summer food program provides free breakfasts and lunches to children who are at-risk of going hungry over the summer months. The Food Bank also partners with programs such as Meals on Wheels to assist seniors who receive meal assistance during the week, but also need help to avoid going hungry on the weekends. The Senior Servings program helps fill this gap.
The East Texas Food Bank also runs mobile pantries with their fleet of trucks, distributing food to clients in areas where there may not be an existing partner agency.
One of the main priorities of the Food Bank is to “educate and enlighten individuals about healthier, more economical food choices,” said Davis. “It may be surprising to some, but if you go to a grocery store, the exterior of the store with fresh produce and meats is where you should shop; the interior is full of packaged, inexpensive fillers that are not high in nutritional value.” The East Texas Food Bank provides nutrition classes that teach low-income individuals the basics of food budgeting and good eating habits.
As part of their Outreach program, the East Texas Food Bank encourages clients to utilize all resources available to them, such as federal and state nutrition programs, especially the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). “In 2015, we helped more than 2,000 individuals submit SNAP applications,” Davis said.
“Individuals and corporations that make gifts to the East Texas Food Bank can be assured that 95 cents out of every dollar goes directly to programs and services,” explained Davis. “We encourage people to get involved at any level that is comfortable for them, including volunteering on site, hosting a food drive, or giving a donation through our secure website.”
See how you can make a difference in the lives of East Texans, visit the East Texas Food Bank website at www.easttexasfoodbank.org, call (903)597-3663, or visit them at www.facebook.com/EastTexasFoodBank.
The East Texas Food Bank is located at 3201 Robertson Road in Tyler.