The San Antonio Food Bank has almost completed a year of success that would probably make other food banks around the country envious. It feeds more than 58,000 people every week through direct donations and working with more than 500 nonprofit partners in 16 counties.
Almost half of all Food Bank donations consist of fresh produce, despite the public food drives primarily receiving non-perishables.
The facility itself is huge, sitting on a footprint of 40 acres of land out west on Old Highway 90. Builders just completed an additional 106,000 square-foot warehouse in January, and considering the volume they move, they'll need that capacity.
Just last week, H-E-B announced a donation of 2.5 million pounds of produce for the holiday season through its Holiday from the Hearth program. That is 63 semi trucks worth of fruits and vegetables, far more than any previous year. In the heart of winter, the company is distributing a mind-boggling amount of bananas, mangos, onions, and lettuce to the hungriest parts of San Antonio.
Hugh Topper, H-E-B’s vice president of fresh food, described the relationship between the SA Food Bank and H-E-B as “long standing and mutually supportive.” The SA Food Bank gets a corporate partner with hundreds of stores filled with good food, and H-E-B, in turn, receives tax rebates along with a well-earned reputation as a generous company.
This month’s donation, while huge, is still just a small part of the 45 million pounds of food that the Food Bank is estimated to have distributed in 2014.
Still, giving a family rice and beans is one thing. Teaching a family how to buy or grow its rice and beans is something else entirely.
In addition to being the sourcing depot for the closest food pantry, the Food Bank is a hive of programs training the city to become more self-sufficient and healthy. It's these other programs that distinguish it and represent a prudent commitment to sustainable solutions, which they call "shortening the line."
Food Bank President and CEO Eric Cooper has prioritized programs that target the root causes of hunger in the city.
"Hunger is a symptom of poverty, and a lot of families that are underemployed or just a paycheck away from not having food on the table find themselves at our pantries and at our food bank," Cooper said.
The most common reason that adults are forced to rely on food pantries to meet their nutritional needs is the inability to find a job that will pay them a living wage. So, there are Food Bank programs intended to boost employment.
The Community Kitchen Culinary Training Program features on-the-job training at the Food Bank's catering wing, Catalyst Catering Company, which has been hired for events across the city. During the 18-week course (2015 schedule is here), students learn basic culinary skills and eventually contribute to Catalyst. Catalyst gives employees valuable skills and revenue from the company boosts the Food Bank's margins.
The Second Chance program applies the same method of connecting job training to those who may not have many opportunities to enter the workforce without it. The Food Bank partners with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to bring in prisoners from Dominguez State Jail. Once at the Food Bank, they train them in warehouse operations and forklift management for six months, interspersing work with instruction from guest speakers from different industries.
The nutrition department prioritizes health, which includes public outreach and classes on dietary quality, budgeting a healthy kitchen, and how to cook healthy food that actually tastes good. Led by the energetic and strategic Dr. Luz-Myriam Neira, the 10-person staff makes intangible but systematic progress on the chronic diseases that plague San Antonio. The nutrition staff ranges from Matt Molpus, who coordinates the Food Bank’s farmers markets, to Jacqueline Salame, who teaches nutrition, to leaders at churches around the city.
Out in the back, behind the enormous warehouse and the office, there are men tilling the soil and harvesting the crops. Cooper’s vision for the Food Bank is one of sustainability. While H-E-B and other corporate donors are breaking record highs in terms of their contributions, another recession could derail their donations. Perhaps the federal government will cut food stamp funding again, pushing the burden on local food banks to fill the void. Whatever the future cause of a food shortage, Cooper is growing the Food Bank, and the Food Bank is growing crops.
Head Farmer Mike Persyn has a good-natured smile, technical expertise, and sun-kissed skin that could make even the most iPhone-addicted teenager want to get his hands dirty. Persyn manages more than 20 acres of farmland to produce immense yields. He and his staff will harvest about 15,000 pounds of produce out of a single acre of cabbage. Carrots are even more impressive, yielding a full 10 tons per acre. Mike has been farming for more than 40 years, and the land he’s working now is the same land his family tended in the 1920s.
Stretching their tiny staff of three to plant and harvest all the crops is just barely possible because of all of the volunteers who come and help farm. Mike and his crew will teach anyone willing to put in a couple hours to volunteer, and there is always work to be done on the farm.
Put simply, the San Antonio Food Bank is awesome. It has a rare, highest-possible rating for accountability and transparency for nonprofits from Charity Navigator and was ranked Food Bank of the Year in 2007. Besides feeding tens of thousands of people each week, it's helping the city grow up and grow more.
At the Spurs section of the community garden earlier this year, Spurs coach Greg Popovich remarked, “Basketball is entertaining, but it's silly.”
"This represents people's lives. The Food Bank nurtures people who don't have what many of us do have," he said, looking out at the burgeoning crops.
*Featured/top image: Mike Persyn, San Antonio Food Bank's head farmer, pulls weeds from a row of young carrots. Photo by Iris Dimmick.