One in seven people in 13 North Texas counties depend on meal programs and pantries supported by the Tarrant Area Food Bank, according to the latest study from U.S. hunger-relief agency Feeding America.
The need appears to be growing. Well over half — 61.3 percent — of partner agencies with Tarrant Area Food Bank in Tarrant County alone reported an increase in the number of clients over the previous year, according to Hunger in America 2014.
The massive national study surveyed some 12,500 agencies from October 2012 to January 2013, and more than 60,000 clients from April to August 2013. The figures do not include any meal programs specifically for children, such as school or summer lunch programs.
Area providers say the factors contributing to the increase are many, and not always strictly from unemployment or impoverished living situations.
The inability to obtain jobs that pay a living wage, transportation costs, healthcare access and a lack of or substandard educational opportunities also contribute to the problem, said William Pherigo, executive director of West Aid of Fort Worth, which serves southwest Fort Worth.
The study showed that 55 percent of households served by Tarrant Area Food Bank pantry and meal programs had at least one person employed at some point in the survey period.
“I think for a long time people have felt like if people just had a job, things would be OK,” Pherigo said. “I’m seeing people with $14 and $15 an hour jobs who can’t make it.”
Randy Clinton, executive director of the Community Enrichment Center, a faith-based nonprofit offering a range of services to needy families in Tarrant County, said education about finances also would help many clients.
Besides poor spending habits he said, “we need to talk about saving rates and predatory lending.”
Pherigo cannot forget an incident two weeks ago when two children came in with a parent, sat down and started eating raw potatoes. Volunteers had to stop them and offer them fruit, he said.
“There are probably people who come in here who have made some bad decisions, but I think they are in a minority. And even if that’s not true, sometimes there are children in those households and they have no control over the bad decisions their parents make.
“Those kids who came in here eating raw potatoes, those kids were hungry.”
North Texas pantries and the Tarrant Area Food Bank, which supplies the equivalent of more than 2 million meals a month to partners in 13 counties, have felt increasing pressure to do more, said Andrea Helms, food bank communications director.
Officials expect to break ground on a new $7 million building in late September, she said. The new building at 2525 Cullen St. will house staff, a community meeting room and a demonstration kitchen. The target move-in date is summer 2015.
Once the staff has moved into the new building, the organization will expand and update its warehouse facilities, Helms said.
In fiscal year 2013, the Tarrant Area Food Bank distributed 33 million pounds of fresh, frozen and dry groceries. But by 2020, it estimates, it will need to distribute more than 50 million pounds of food to keep up with demand, Helms said.
“We need more space and new freezers and coolers in order to handle more food and feed more people,” Helms said. “People need to understand that the recession is not over for a whole lot of people.”