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Texas Food Bank Network brings professionalism to charitable cause

by Chip Carter | December 06, 2010
Lee Pipkin, food resource director for the Fort Worth-based Texas Food Bank Network, knows that many people in these troubled times look slightly askance at charitable organizations. He also knows there have rarely been times when more Americans have needed assistance.

The obvious solution to closing the trust gap between corporate America and people who genuinely need help is for charitable organizations to operate more like the businesses they rely on for support.

"Nonprofits sometimes get a bad rap," Mr. Pipkin said. As a result, “We work hard to make sure we're at the top of the heap — we’re trying to portray ourselves as being very professional in assisting the people we work with. We have to honor both our recipients and our partners that are out there. We’re not just an organization taking anything and distributing anything. Food safety is paramount — if we get somebody sick who’s already compromised we’ve done nobody any good. But in the last couple of years, the need has gone up in the state of Texas about 30 percent — it’s across the board, it’s children, it’s families, it’s seniors, it’s the whole ball of wax. The picture of a hungry Texan could be just about anybody walking up and down the street.”

Mr. Pipkin said it is particularly important to keep in mind that harsh economic times have put an increasing number of hard-working Americans in peril, a paycheck away from devastation.

“Many times people think of the food bank as handing out a box to the guy on the street corner with a sign,” he said. “But in the state of Texas, the majority of the folks we deal with are not those folks. They are certainly within the clientele we serve, but the majority of the people who receive assistance are working families, families where at least one member is working. It’s like in the Brooks and Dunn song — there’s too much month at the end of the money. They are one car bill away from being absolutely broke. Those are the majority of the people we are serving.”

The network was founded in 1986 as an outgrowth of an attempt by a food retailers’ trade association to conduct a statewide food drive. In the last 15 years, the network has coalesced into a single voice uniting 19 member food banks across the state representing 3,600 agencies, fostering and facilitating cooperation between members and statewide resources, particularly state government.

“We try to honor not only the recipients of our assistance, we honor the intent of our donors, whether they are cash donors or members of the produce industry, we honor that and we are respectful of that because there are so many other opportunities where they can go with that product or those dollars,” Mr. Pipkin said. “A lot of times it may be easier for a produce grower to till under a surplus crop. It may be easier just to go to the dump and pay the disposal fee — but you’ve got to pay to dump that food. We as Americans wasted over 9 billion pounds of food last year. And every 1.28 pounds of food represents a meal.”

The Surplus Agricultural Grant Program — a.k.a. Texans Helping Texans — is a perfect example of how the network serves as an interface for people in need and those who can help. An innovative partnership between the Texas Department of Agriculture, the agricultural community and the network, the program launched in March 2002 to facilitate the donation of surplus product to feed low-income families across Texas.

Creating a direct link between Texas-based commodity producers, processors, food banks, emergency food providers and low-income families, the program offers growers an incentive to donate fresh produce that would otherwise be left in the field by offsetting costs of harvesting and packaging surplus product and in some cases supplying necessary transportation. Since the program’s inception, more than 35 million pounds of fresh product has been distributed throughout the state.

“We are blessed in that the Texas Department of Agriculture provides us with funding — a limited amount but funding nonetheless — that many times if we get a donated load of Texas-grown produce we can provide for transportation, for packing and handling to be able to get the product in a form that we can use it,” Mr. Pipkin said. “We can get bulkloads of potatoes, but if you don’t have the means to rebag those, it doesn’t do you any good. We’re able to subsidize some, and that’s important for our Texas producers.” The program works especially well when growers have surplus product they cannot afford to harvest.

“Operating within the professional realm we do, we can offer that donor a receipt that can make what would have been a total loss more palatable at the end of the year when they look at their tax situation,” Mr. Pipkin said. “Working with a professional nonprofit they can get that receipt — and the subsidies we get help underwrite the cost of the harvesting labor, the bins, even the transportation sometimes. So it’s not just a total loss — you can turn that excess product into something to feel good about. And some food banks have some grant dollars that are dedicated to fresh produce purchases. We make sure it goes to provide fresh produce for Texans who need that product.”

Another unique solution is the Texas Fresh Approach program, a partnership between the network and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice that is the first of its kind in the nation. The statewide initiative now provides hungry Texans with a wide array of fresh vegetables planted and harvested by Texas inmates on surplus Texas Department of Criminal Justice farmland. In addition to planting and harvesting, inmates in some areas also glean fields. The produce is transported to food banks for distribution to charitable member agencies throughout the state of Texas.

Another joint effort between the two entities is the Second Chance program, which helps offenders develop job skills and give back to the community working at food banks in the product recovery process, sorting, sanitizing and packing donations prior to delivery to agencies, as well as assisting with shipping and receiving.

In 2007, Texas inmates worked 106,593 hours and handled almost 94 million pounds of product at eight food banks in the state.

Mr. Pipkin said that he would like to see the network continue to expand and grow. The 19 member agencies have the capability to reach every hungry Texan — but not the resources.

Working with the produce industry “is a two-way street, it truly is. If we’ve got funding that we can utilize, we know we can go to a Texas grower and say we need some help, and sometimes they can come to us and say we need some help,” Mr. Pipkin said. “We want to work with growers throughout Texas or the United States that may have distribution facilities in Texas, take a look at their business plan and show them how the Texas Food Bank Network can fit into that overall plan. We’re open to discuss that. Whether its oranges and citrus out of the Valley, peanuts out of the South Plains or potatoes out of the Panhandle, Texas is blessed with a wide variety of agricultural products that are wonderful for the diet of the people we serve.”

Mr. Pipkin knows that no matter how successful the network becomes, there will always be another hungry mouth to feed. He also knows that those who have been blessed often do not understand just how little it takes to actually make a difference in the lives of needy people.

“Every one of us in the network would love to work ourselves out of a job,” Mr. Pipkin said. “Fortunately, need has pretty well leveled off after two years of increases, but the days of food banks being able to sustain themselves purely off of a church food drive, purely off the Boy Scouts knocking on your door and looking for food donations, those days are long gone.”

Even the state’s smallest food bank, Concho Valley in San Angelo, an area where “there are more sheep than people,” Mr. Pipkin said, serves 18 counties and distributes 1.5 million pounds of food annually.

“A lot of times it’s stuff that you and I take for granted, stuff that we think it insignificant,” Mr. Pipkin said, “but it can make a difference in people’s lives. We are working on a daily basis to find that extra pound of food. I just want one more pound tomorrow than we have today.”

For more information on the network and its programs, call 817/531-3663 or visit