The warm and humid morning air stagnates over the South Texas Food Bank team as they set up at the Zapata County Pavilion for their first ever Mobile Pro-duce Pantry. Today’s offerings included cantaloupe, honey dew, red-skinned potato, oranges, watermelon, and mango. As nine-o’clock approaches, the first few cars start to slowly line up for what the food bank has been eagerly planning since the previous year. By eleven-o’clock, the last of the produce filled mesh bags are handed out. On that seasonally-warm mid-June morning, the South Texas Food Bank directly distributed nearly 10,000 pounds of fresh fruit and vegetables to more than 300 families, impacting over 500 individuals and playing an important role in breaking barriers in creating access to healthier food options.
The South Texas Food Bank is a non-profit hunger-relief organization located in Laredo, Texas that has served 8 counties in South Texas for close to 30 years. The areas served cover over 14,000 square miles and includes the counties of: Webb, Zapata, Jim Hogg, Starr, Val Verde, Maverick, Kinney, and Dimmit. Strategically situated mid-way between the service area, our location allows easy access for distribution and facilitates our outreach in the communities we serve. In 2019, the South Texas Food Bank moved into a newly-renovated facility spread across 93,000 square feet. Our new home boasts ample office space, a fully-equipped commercial kitchen, dedicated sorting and packing area, as well as two large warehouses with a large cold storage area. Throughout our various programs, the South Texas Food Bank is set to distribute over 13 million pounds of food this year, which is an 8 percent increase from the previous year. Currently, we serve 82,000 families per month, in which 10,600 are elderly and 25,500 are children. With poverty rates ranging from 21% to a staggering 36%, the South Texas Food Bank is committed to providing help to communities who face food insecurity.
The Mobile Produce Pantry was created as a way to distribute fresh produce with the specific mission of serving the rural and underserved populations within our service area. The focus of this program is on health and nutrition in response to the strategic plans of the South Texas Food Bank, and Feeding America, the nation’s largest hunger charity relief organization. The Feeding America network of food banks, including the goals of the South Texas Food Bank share a commitment and responsibility to positively influence public health initiatives. In response to the healthcare needs of the populations that we serve, the food bank is committed to augment its capacity and reach, increase distribution of healthier food options, and educate our community on proper nutrition. By working with local government and creating partnerships with healthcare initiatives, growers, distributors, and partner agencies, improving our community’s health and dealing head-on with the public health concerns that plague our communities yield a better output when organized as a collaborative. One of the main approaches at dealing with the high rate of chronic health problems among those with the least amount of financial re-sources, is creating partnerships in order to bridge the nutritional needs with the ease of access, regardless of their financial or logistical origin. By bringing fresh fruits and vegetables to the tables of consumers and breaking down as many barriers as possible, the likelihood to make healthier food choices increases exponentially. Food banks are on the front line of fighting hunger-but also on the front line of raising awareness and creating permanent change in the lives of those that are most affected.
No one chooses to be hungry, but one can choose to eat healthier if the opportunity to do so exists. The health crisis that derives from food insecurity is a burden that afflicts over 30 per-cent of the population in the areas that we serve. The South Texas Food Bank is on a mission to nourish our future by implementing and innovating all of its program to incorporate healthier initiatives. Engaging as many stakeholders and the entire supply chain makes collaborating and focusing towards a targeted goal become possible. While many of the diseases see along our service area have no cure, management of those afflictions and an increase in the quality of life is quite possible through proper nutrition. A focus on health and nutrition begins by educating the community on healthy lifestyle choices and the im-portance of proper nutrition as a preventative measure for the future. Adopting a more ag-gressive produce sourcing and distribution strategy is at the heart and soul of breaking the barriers to our community’s health concerns. An alignment of purpose towards nourishing rather than simply feeding nutritionally-empty calories takes on a completely different meaning when nutrition becomes the difference between life and death. In creating value for every stake-holder, reducing waste and ensuring that the hungry are fed properly, create altruistic opportunities in fulfilling a sustainable mission. Growers have opportunities to of-fload excess crop and reduce their losses, while delivering a low enough sum to qualify the shipment as a do-nation. Support for locally-sourced produce including products coming across the border from Mexico further capitalizes value as it is distributed within Feeding America’s network of over 200 food banks and onto tables all across America. We are being selective in the standards of this program but within reach to impact as many lives as possible through the increase of distribution of fresh produce and building the necessary partnerships. Our goal is to impact as many lives of the people we serve. We have the ability and will to influence change yet only lack the strength in numbers to do so. We thank you for your commitment to the fight against hunger in South Tex-as and the entire United States.
Author: Francisco Reyes
Photos: Camilla Sosa
Abigail Navidad is six years old. She wears her hair in two neat braids that bounce as she skips happily around the El Cenizo Community Center, while her mother patiently waits for her other children to finish their meal. Abigail is one of four sisters, ranging in ages from fourteen to four years old, who attend the Kid’s Café site in the rural community of El Cenizo, Texas.
The Navidad family has been receiving assistance from the South Texas Food Bank for seven years, both through the Kid’s Café program and the local food pantry in El Cenizo. Even though Abigail is one of the younger siblings in her family, everyone who knows her describes her as the “mother hen” of the group who is always looking out for her family.
“She is very nurturing to her sisters and she worries when they do not eat,” stated Delfina Moreno, the center director for El Cenizo. Abigail and her sisters attend the Kid’s Café daily, where they receive a hot meal after school. The Kid’s Café offers a safe place for children to go after school where they can eat, play and get help with their homework. “I like it because the food is good and it makes me feel better,” Abigail explained.
Abigail’s parents both work, but they still require the extra assistance to make ends meet. The family receives weekly food disbursements from the pantry located in the El Cenizo Community Center. Abigail is usually the one to remind her mother when groceries are being distributed at the site. “She gets so excited,” Luz Gonzalez, Abigail’s mother, relates as she hugs her youngest daughter close to her chest. “She comes in for the Kid’s Café and when it’s time to go home, she always tells me, ‘Don’t forget to pick up the food. Today they are giving this or that.’”
Abigail and her family are very appreciative of the services they receive from the food bank. “It’s a big help for our family,” Gonzalez stated. “We have four daughters. My husband works full time but I only work part time so I can watch them.” Gonzalez explained that they first heard about the programs when her eldest daughter was seven years old. “She used to come afterschool when she was in second grade. Now she is fourteen and she still comes with her sisters; that’s how much they love it here.”
The South Texas Food Bank provides nutritious meals to over 7,000 children just like Abigail and her sisters every month. With over eighty sites throughout the eight counties we service, we go beyond simple food distribution. We provide meals served with a side of hope for children and families in need.
Author: Camilla Sosa
Photo Courtesy of El Cenizo Community Center