ARLINGTON -- A crowd of families, single mothers and elderly people in need of groceries started to gather outside Aldersgate United Methodist Church by 7 a.m. Wednesday.
Within three hours, hundreds of people were in a line that stretched across a courtyard, through a church breezeway and down a sidewalk. Men, women and children carried crates, boxes, wire carts, suitcases and even laundry baskets in which to load food.
Soon they were filing past tables in the church parking lot, collecting fresh vegetables, yogurt and eggs.
"Oh, they have celery and carrots and apples today," said Sheri Wells, an Arlington mother of two as she dropped a carrot bunch into a box. "It's great because it used to be you would find mostly canned things, and fresh produce is actually kind of expensive."
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This is the Tarrant Area Food Bank's mobile food pantry, a program that some call a model of the future for distributing food to people in need.
Food banks typically distribute mostly canned and dry goods to partner organizations to give out at their own food pantries.
Through the mobile pantry program, the food bank delivers, once a month, fresh or frozen food in refrigerated trucks -- sometimes including chicken or beef -- to certain locations where, with the help of the partner organizations, people can get groceries directly.
The strategy evolved as grocery stores, where food banks get most of their products, have altered their inventories to meet the demands of customers who want more fresh or frozen foods.
For food pantry clients, it provides greater access to more nutritious food. But the shift can also pose logistical struggles for the pantries, many of which have little or no freezer or refrigerator space to safely store it.
Wednesday's mobile pantry, for example, was organized with Arlington Urban Ministries, whose primary mission is to provide emergency financial assistance for rent and utilities.
But it also operates a small food pantry that offers mostly canned and dry goods.
"We just don't have the capacity or means to keep perishables," said Rhonda Brown, the ministries' program manager. "But that's the type of food we are seeing more of these days. That's why we have to find new ways to get nutritious foods to people who need it."
The Tarrant Area Food Bank started the first mobile pantry in 2009 as grocery stores and supermarkets continued to increase their stock of perishable foods. With two freezers that can store 20 tractor-trailer loads of food, the food bank could generally handle the inventory, said Bo Soderbergh, executive director of the food bank.
But some agencies found themselves with too much food they couldn't store.
"In the past, our partner agencies came to the food bank on a schedule for pickups," he said. "When we started introducing more and more produce, agencies were encouraged to come more frequently. But as the volume of perishable products kept growing, we realized we would have to find a better, more efficient way of doing this."
The food bank opened a new mobile pantry last week in the Stop Six neighborhood in southeast Fort Worth, Soderbergh said. The program served 687 people almost 20,000 pounds of food, he said.
"We don't have any partner agencies that would have the capacity to harbor the amount of food we distributed," Soderbergh said.
The challenges aren't just a lack of freezer space, said Barbara Anderson, state director of the Texas Food Bank Network. Health laws require that foods be kept at certain temperatures not only during storage but also during transport. Refrigerated trucks are needed.
Wal-Mart and Chase Bank donated refrigerated 18-wheelers to the Tarrant Area Food Bank.
The trucks greatly enhanced the food bank's ability to deliver fresh or frozen foods to outposts in its 13-county area, she said.
"The only way to deliver to agencies in, for example, Parker County, is to unload it from the refrigerated truck directly to the agency where you are delivering it," Anderson said. "There is a huge emphasis on food safety."
Mobile pantries now deliver to seven locations, usually churches, farmers markets or school gymnasiums. Each site feeds between 200 and 600 families, according to the food bank. It is open to the public.
The line Wednesday suggests that the program is popular. Susan Welsh, 64, of Fort Worth said she arrived at 5:45 a.m. for the 10 a.m. pantry in Arlington. She said she is disabled and considers the mobile pantries "a blessing" for people on fixed incomes.
"People who do get food stamps ... it's not enough," she said. "Because when you go to the store, you can buy milk, bread, some vegetables and eggs and there is $20."
Wells, the Arlington mother, said the mobile pantry helps her avoid difficult decisions, such as whether to pay a utility bill or buy groceries. Her children are six and 13 and their appetites are growing, she added.
"I want them to eat well," she said. "When you're low on money, it's not always easy."
The Arlington food pantry has grown steadily from serving 200 families when it started in December to 457 families last month, Brown said.
The food bank plans to keep the program at seven locations for now, Soderbergh said. But it will soon pilot a new program model that he called "pantry express," in which the food bank will deliver a manageable supply of perishable items to smaller partner agencies.
"We're adapting to meet new challenges," he said. "That's what we have to do."
Alex Branch, 817-390-7689