Fort Worth city council members will get an update Tuesday on the state of the food bank in the country's 13th largest city as the coronavirus pandemic stretches on.
"My big message is really about just the increased need in the community and that is not retracting. It has been going on since March, and I do not see an end in the future until we can get a vaccine and get people back to work. This increase in need is going to continue. So, just helping the council understand this is systemic. It's long-lasting and it's a huge increase in demand right now," Julie Butner, president and CEO of the Tarrant Area Food Bank, told NBC 5.
Butner will also update the council on her efforts to find ways to get more food services to the 76104 neighborhood, an area considered a food desert with limited access to a variety of healthy and affordable food. Butner says she and her team looked at "retail-like grocery stores" in three communities and she believes a wellness bus she called Wellness on Wheels is a quick fix.
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"If you think of a food truck-type vehicle that would actually be 'wheels on the ground' in the 76104. We would have emergency food box distribution, fresh produce distribution and a community resource specialist on the bus that would sign members up for longer-term community resources such as SNAP," she explained. "The Wellness on Wheels is a short term solution to bring groceries into that community."
Butner modeled her idea after one in San Antonio. While she's excited about the possibilities of a wellness bus, she needs two things to make it happen: a donor to pay for it and community support to make sure it's the right idea for residents in the 76104 ZIP code.
"And I want to do this in conjunction with a group newly formed called Team 76104. This is a grassroots, community-driven effort that was started by religious leaders in the area but they are working to involve others in this problem-solving tactic. Tarrant Area Food Bank is one of the others that they have reached out to help problem-solve," Butner said.
If those two things come true, Butner believes she could the Wellness on Wheels idea up and running in five months.
"In the meantime, we have partner agencies in the 76104 and we do a lot of mobile distributions to help meet the needs of the community," she said.
As for a long term solution for a grocery store, "It's a trickier situation. Of course, Tarrant Area Food Bank is not a grocery store expert. That's not the work we do," she said.
Butner visited areas in Dallas, Galveston and Waco where retail-like grocery stores were opened in areas similar to 76104 and says all are struggling.
"It sounds like one of the most immediate ways to resolve is to, number one, get something like the Wellness on Wheels. And number two, get transportation into the community so the community can access resources wherever they may reside in the community," Butner said.
As the impact of the pandemic amplifies the mission of fighting hunger, Butner, in her 11th month on the job, says the agency has what it needs today to serve clients and partner agencies "but without knowing the longevity or the impact of the virus, I don't know how long I will have what I need. So, it's a continued concern."
Still, she is grateful so many continue to step up and help where needed.
"I want to tell the public and the community how much I really appreciate their support. We could not do the work we do in this community without the support of the people in it," Butner said.