More than 100 people attended the Annual State of the Food Bank Banquet Thursday evening at the San Antonio Food Bank and enjoyed a three-course meal prepared by SA Food Bank culinary students.

The event was designed to update current and past board members, the advisory board, and key community leaders on the happenings at the Food Bank and the goals for the coming year.

SA Food Bank Chief Development Officer Michael Guerra led the event with a welcome and introduced most of the speakers. San Antonio Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich was slated to give the closing remarks, but was unable to attend due to personal reasons.

“This was a very exciting year for the Food Bank, with lots of growth,” past Board Chair Rose Jentz said. “We broke ground on a new facility in New Braunfels, which will allow us to serve the needs of that very-quickly-growing community. We also raised more than 20 million meals and donations and increased the number of individual volunteers by 4,000.”

This year, the Food Bank supported 44,550 volunteers who gave 129,789 hours of service and worked in the main warehouse, farmers markets, helped with administrative support, and more.

The new 2017 San Antonio Food Bank board members applaud the SA Food Bank's accomplishments at the 2016 State of the Food Bank. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.
The new 2017 San Antonio Food Bank board members applaud the SA Food Bank’s accomplishments at the 2016 State of the Food Bank. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.

SA Food Bank Nominating and Planning Chair Jimmy Toubin recognized the current board of directors and introduced the new leadership for the 2017 fiscal year: Travis C. Hodges will serve as board chair, Donna C. Normandin as first vice chair, Geoff Miller as second vice chair, Jeff Schumacher as secretary, and John L. Shank as treasurer.

Thursday night also was an opportunity for people to truly understand how the Food Bank frames its work in order to cover all of the facets that affect people in need.

San Antonio Food Bank President Eric Cooper told the Rivard Report that he believes in a strategic and holistic approach because “it’s not about giving people a calorie, but moving people to a more stable place. Everybody should receive according to need, but work according to ability.”

Last year, the Food Bank distributed 62 million pounds of food, and Cooper said next year’s goal is to increase that to 67 million.

“(Additionally), our annual impact is measured by the nutritional quality of each pound,” said SA Food Bank Board Member and Food Committee Chair Todd Wright.

Each week, the Food Bank feeds more than 58,000 people, of which two-thirds are children and seniors. If we think of the concept of work according to accountability, Cooper said, kids and seniors don’t have a lot of ability to work, but 18-65 year olds do.

Bags full of groceries are bunched together before given out to needy families. Photo by Scott Ball.
Bags full of groceries are bunched together before given out to needy families. Photo by Scott Ball. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

“Fifty-four percent of the people we help currently work, and 46% are unemployed,” Cooper said. “The term ‘working poor,’ that’s who the Food Bank serves, those who work but aren’t making enough – that 46% struggling for employment, we want to be a solution for them.”

This year, the Food Bank had a 10% increase in meals and a 10% increase in programs and services across the 17 counties it serves. Additionally, for the seventh consecutive year, the San Antonio Food Bank received the highest rating possible for financial stewardship by Charity Navigator, an international firm that looks at 1.5 million charities across the country – only two percent of charities in the U.S. have achieved that rating.

“In order to be successful, we need to raise the funds necessary to execute and encourage people to get involved through hosting a food collection or advocating around public policy,” Cooper said. “This is a great way to make a huge difference and support our ‘feeding with impact’ work.”

Cooper said that the Food Bank “feeds the line (of hungry people)” and takes care of those who struggle for that immediate need for food, but the organization also makes it a point to have a strategy that shortens that line, which is why the Food Bank frames its work in three parts:

1. Food for today

The first part of the Food Bank’s strategy involves immediate access to food and grocery products for those in need. The importance of this first strategy ties back to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a theory in psychology that states that in order for people to reach the highest level of self-actualization, they must satisfy certain core needs first.

San Antonio Food Bank President and CEO Eric S. Cooper thanks everyone for their support of the Food Bank. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.
San Antonio Food Bank President and CEO Eric S. Cooper thanks everyone for their support of the Food Bank. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.

“If your basic needs aren’t met, its tough to function,” Cooper told the Rivard Report. “Food is a basic need. A lot of families don’t know where their next meal is coming from and (if they don’t get nourished), they can get headaches and they are much more irritable. Kids can’t learn on an empty stomach and seniors can’t get well if (they don’t get the healthy food they need).”

2. Food for tomorrow

Guerra believes that hunger is a symptom of a bigger issue, which is why the Food Bank’s second strategy is all about support.

“Hunger is only really one challenge,” Guerra said. “We also need to look at the more complex issues of poverty.”

Guerra added that, this year, the gardens and farms that the Food Bank operates have doubled what they produce and decreased overall waste by 30%, helping provide an additional 350,000 meals to the community.

This summer, the Food Bank signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the National Park Service to operate a 50-acre farm at Mission San Juan, with an accompanying five-acre demonstration farm.

(Read more: SA Food Bank Acquires ‘Texas’ Oldest Grocery Store’ at Mission San Juan)

This year, the Food Bank also introduced a hydroponics system to its greenhouse – a technique which uses 90% less water than soil farming.

“We grow food every opportunity we have and teach our clients how to grow food in their own garden, at home, or in their neighborhood,” said SA Food Bank Board Member Ken Allen. “We’re very excited about our new 50-acre farm at Mission San Juan and the hydroponics greenhouse garden. We are on the leading edge to try and create ways to grow more product.”

It’s important to start a conversation with individuals who use the Food Bank’s services, Cooper said. This means breaking down and analyzing their needs and finding out if they are eligible for programs or benefits of which that they might be unaware.

Many of them are dealing with issues such as medical crises, divorce, addiction, or even a broken-down car, Cooper said, and all of those things carry weight.

“There are dozens of programs and benefits that we can wrap around the client to help stabilize their life, so we try and see how we can help them apply (to such programs),” he said.

3. Food for a lifetime

Once Food Bank staff gets to know their clients, they can have conversations about employment opportunities. Some in need of employment might have a degree but need to update their resumé or get connected to job opportunities, Cooper said.

The Food Bank partners with Workforce Solutions Alamo, a network of service providers and contractors that brings people and jobs together. In addition, Cooper said the Food Bank staff coaches people on interview skills.

“If we have individuals who are unskilled, we have our training programs, such as the culinary arts program and warehousing,” he said, adding that the two training programs are free to the public.

The Food Bank also offers an 18-week culinary program, participants are trained on how to prepare meals in Food Bank kitchens.

San Antonio Food Bank Chefs Martha Solis and John Munoz prepare a large skillet for more ingredients. Photo by Scott Ball.
San Antonio Food Bank Chefs Martha Solis and John Munoz prepare a large skillet for more ingredients. Photo by Scott Ball. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

This year, the Food Bank taught 109 classes with 129 students and had a total of 46 graduates.

“Once they graduate (from the program), we help them get jobs at restaurants, hotels, and (with) caterers,” Cooper said. “It’s incredible to see these individuals provide for themselves and hear their success stories.”

For SA Food Bank Second Vice Chair and Program Committee Member Donna Normandin, food for a lifetime means “getting people to be self-sufficient enough to where they don’t need places like the Food Bank or they don’t need Haven for Hope,” she said. “And what leads to that is healthy, meaningful employment.”

The Secret of Wellness

For many, the deck is stacked against them when it comes to wellness and nutrition. The Rivard Report asked Cooper about the direct correlation between ‘the poverty line and the waistline,’ prompting him to share his thoughts on the choices people make around food and the importance of income and geography.

The Food Bank’s core philosophy is that good nutrition and physical activity can heal the world, and Cooper agrees that income and geography are two pivotal factors which can intrinsically change the tide toward wellness.

“If people don’t live close to a grocery store or have access to transportation, they will shop more at a convenience store, for example,” he said. “It’s important to give out nutrition information and inform individuals about the choices they make around food.”

Is more food for people in need really the solution?

“Sometimes people don’t realize and assume that ‘if you are overweight, then it’s too much food,’” Cooper said, “but really, the problem is that it’s not enough of the right food.”

Children and teachers from Pre-K for SA West inspect the farm at the San Antonio Food Bank. Photo by Scott Ball.
Children and teachers from Pre-K 4 SA’s west campus tour the farm at the San Antonio Food Bank. Photo by Scott Ball.

Cooper said that cheaper foods and fast food dollar menus have negative long-term effects on people’s health, such as diabetes, obesity, hypertension, and heart disease.

“These are all things we can avoid. The solution to hunger and nourishment is really the right food, in the right amount, at the right time,” he said. “If we can align this, we can really bring our community to a place of wellness.”

Knowing how to cook and learning how to properly prepare vegetables seem like simple, inconsequential things, but for people who struggle with buying the right foods or have trouble accessing food at all, they make a world of a difference.

This year, the Food Bank provided more than 400 classes a week for its partner agencies, corporate funders, and the general public. Allen said that clients were able to learn about diabetes education and management, food stamp/budget friendly recipes, and more.

But motivating people to look past their immediate hunger needs and focus on the core of the issue isn’t as simple as it seems. Cooper mentioned the oft-quoted proverb that says, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime,” and said his and his team’s work at the Food Bank isn’t so black and white.

“If ‘he’ doesn’t know that you have packed him some tuna fish sandwiches, he won’t meet you at the fishing dock,” he said. “He can’t go out and learn how to fish and take that opportunity if he and his children are hungry. You have to feed the line (of hungry people) and then shorten the line.”

To learn more about the Food Bank and its services, click here.

Top image: San Antonio Food Bank  Community Farm Manager Mike Persyn runs a plow through the 25-acre farm.  Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.

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Rocío Guenther

Rocío Guenther

Rocío Guenther worked as a reporter and editorial assistant for the Rivard Report from June 2016 to October 2017. Rocío writes about immigration, the U.S.-Mexico relationship, and culinary scenes. She...