Families made their way with shopping carts to pick among bags of rice, cans of tomatoes, jars of peanut butter and frozen chickens in a small room at the Northside Inter-Community Agency on Thursday afternoon.
For some, it was the first time they had needed to come to the food pantry on Circle Park Boulevard for emergency groceries. Others had been there before over the years, when things got really bad. They told stories of unemployment and medical problems that left them unable to feed their families.
Agency Executive Director Connie Nahoolewa said she can see that things are more difficult now than they were five years ago.
“It’s not just the need, it’s the urgency and desperation you can feel,” she said. “Our numbers have doubled, just because of the economy. … It’s just hard to keep [food] on the shelves.”
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Leaders of the Tarrant Area Food Bank, which provides food to that agency and some 300 others across 13 north Texas counties, said that message is consistent.
Food bank Executive Director Bo Soderbergh said the bank has not run out of food, but has not hit a ceiling as it has hiked efforts to bring in more and more donations. It is distributing twice as much as it was five years ago.
“I don’t think that we even now meet the need,” he said.
And so, the bank is trying to grow — with a $12 million expansion that will take its food distribution from 33 million to 50 million pounds of food annually. That will be enough to serve 40 million meals.
Soderbergh said he never could have imagined in the late 1990s that the facility would need this scale of an expansion, but the demand escalation has been clear in recent years.
“The rapid expansion [of need] came with the recession — it was very linked to job loss and the population that came in,” he said, adding that Tarrant County became “something of a magnate” for people looking for jobs during that time.
Some high-need areas include neighborhoods on the west side of Lake Arlington, the south side of downtown Fort Worth, the Haltom City area and the Cleburne area, according to information from food bank Community Impact Manager Romy Basil.
County and nonprofit leaders turned out Thursday for an early morning groundbreaking and breakfast for the first phase of the food bank’s new construction. That will involve building a 28,200 square-foot administration building near its warehouse headquarters at 2600 Cullen Street.
The organization’s leaders plan to move into those offices in early summer of next year. By then, they hope to have raised enough money to renovate vacated space in the main Cullen Street location.
They plan to knock out the offices there for more volunteer areas, increase freezer and refrigeration space and move the existing cold storage from the middle of the warehouse to the edge, so the forklifts moving crates of food around the warehouse can more quickly bring it in from donors and out to the partner pantries.
Logistics experts believe those changes will let the food bank up its distribution at least 50 percent without actually having to increase the footprint of the building, director of communications Andrea Helms said.
The renovations will also address a shift in food bank donations and demand away from canned and dried goods to more fresh and frozen foods.
National eating habits have trended toward fresh foods as food banks have trended toward distributing more healthy foods, which has led to a need for more cold storage and efficient distribution, Helms said.
The food bank has grown from serving 4,000 households per month in 1983 to 53,000 this year. Soderbergh estimated the bank has raised about half of the funding needed to complete both phases of the expansion and renovation.
“We do feel there’s a strong case to be made of us needing to move 50 million pounds,” he said.