Tarrant County

Tarrant Area Food Bank Prepares for Holiday Season, Major Expansion Project

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The city of Fort Worth is pledging COVID relief money from the federal government to help a local food bank serve more people than ever before.

Tarrant Area Food Bank is in the process of creating what is being called an “agricultural hub," the first of its kind in our area.

In just a matter of months, an 80,000-square-foot empty warehouse across the street from TAFB will be transformed into a produce hub, processing fresh fruits, and vegetables for countless hungry families across the entire region.

Right now, the Fort Worth City Council is in the process of approving $3 million from the American Rescue Plan to go toward this effort. That's one-time grant money issued by the Biden administration to cities and counties across the country to help build the country back after the pandemic.

The Council's commitment is just one of the final pieces coming together.

TAFB said demand from hungry families has grown to new heights during the pandemic. Currently, roughly one in four children and one in six adults are struggling with food insecurity. Inflation has made it worse.

"We are seeing just as many people right now needing support as we saw at the height of the pandemic,” said Julie Butner, CEO of Tarrant Area Food Bank. "It's unfortunate. We just have not seen a reduction in people in need. And I think it's directly attributed to this inflation that we're seeing."

The need to expand operations grows as the population grows, which is something Fort Worth has been very good at lately.

"We are the second or third fastest growing county in the United States and we are now the 12th largest city in the United States," Butner said. "So anytime you have that type of population growth, a subset of the population who is not earning a living wage is in need of our services."

Luckily, Feeding America – the parent non-profit to many of the large food banks here in Texas – asked TAFB before the pandemic if it could serve as a regional hub for processing produce for families in North Texas and beyond. It’s proximity to farmers and interstates in the area made it an ideal location.

TAFB just needed to find the funding and space to make it happen.

To find such a property to house such expansion proved difficult, much less affordable.

But in another stroke of luck, a warehouse space directly across the street from TAFB’s headquarters became available and work began recently to acquire it.

"Which is a miracle in and of itself, because of where we are located. Property is hard to come by," said Butner.

It will cost about $15 million to purchase and renovate it up to safety standards, including adding refrigeration to process and hold produce in massive amounts.

That funding is made possible through $8 million from the city of Fort Worth and Tarrant county, $3.5 million from a Texas Department of Agriculture grant, and $1.2 million from the Sid Richardson Foundation.

It will take about nine to 12 months of build-out before it’s operational.

"It's a personal personal passion of mine. Many community members who are food insecure do not have access to fresh produce because of its cost. Or because they're living in a food desert, where there isn't a grocery store to give them fresh produce,” said Butner. “And of course, there's a direct correlation between health and wellness and access to fresh produce – and also to the top five chronic diseases in the United States. As a dietitian, this one's personal."

Right now, about 30 percent of TAFB’s product is fresh produce. With this hub, it will grow to more than 50 percent.

"Those who are food insecure don't typically have access to fresh produce, it's expensive and it's hard to come by. And this will ensure that our neighbors always have access,” Butner said.

Additionally, the produce hub will allow TAFB to acquire more products for hungry families in new ways.

"Our neighbors in adjoining states like Oklahoma – the food bank there has a beef packing facility. And in Arkansas, they have a chicken packing facility. So by bringing in excess produce, we can trade our produce for protein, which is also extremely important for those who are food insecure, and to their health and well-being,” said Butner.

HOLIDAY PREP

Tarrant Area Food Bank started preparing for the holidays several months in advance.

TAFB is expecting to serve 15,000 families in the week ahead of Thanksgiving and that’s not including all the food they plan to distribute to its nearly 450 partner agencies.

"We are busy soliciting those donations from our manufacturers and retailers and other partners in the community so that we will be ready to serve as many people as we can for the holiday season," said Butner. "And also to supply our partner agencies with what they need to serve their communities."

Six mobile food drives are also planned the week before Thanksgiving, with several more between now and then. Volunteers are also needed to make every effort possible.

With a total of a million meals served per week, TAFB said the monumental effort to continue to feed families during economically stressful times has not been easy.

"We're spending about a million and a half dollars a month more than anticipated on food alone, to help address the need. So there continues to be supply chain issues with food,” said Butner. "Gasoline affects us fairly significantly, as well. We spend about $10,000 a month on gasoline to to get the food out into the community and to truck it to our partner agencies where it is needed. So that that continues to be a concern."

TAFB dodged the recent turkey shortage because staff already bought all the turkeys they need for the holidays ahead of time.

However, another challenge is inflation and economic pressures on donors, which has caused donations to wane this year.

Like so many nonprofits and other food banks, TAFB is relying on gifts from North Texas Giving Day on Thursday to help offset the costs this holiday season.

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