Point Austin: Eat the Heat

Capital Area Food Bank extends its reach and relevance

Point Austin
I'll be out of town for this year's Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival (Sunday, Aug. 28), and while I can't exactly say I'll miss it – just thinking about it during this blazing summer is giving me mental heatstroke – I'm proud to be part of an organization that throws such a great party and, in the bargain, raises money and donations for those in need. According to Chronicle Hot Sauce Maven Erin Collier, "Last year's Hot Sauce Festival raised almost $17,000 and more than 23,500 pounds of food for Central Texans in need," distributed by the Capital Area Food Bank of Texas. The money stretches in value – "for every $5 donated to the CAFB," continues Erin, "the food bank can provide $25 worth of nutritious food."

Those numbers are nothing to sniff at, yet they pale before the profound need. Over the last year, Erin continued, the Capital Area Food Bank distributed more than 25 million pounds of food to nearly 300,000 Central Texans in the agency's 21-county service territory. According to the folks at CAFB, there has been a steady increase over the last decade. Three years ago, as food bank CEO Hank Perret told me last week, the organization was distributing 17 million pounds a year, and, "We expect to hit 25 million again this year."

Big Numbers

I spent a couple of hours last week with Perret and John Turner of the CAFB staff, and the raw numbers kept coming. Roughly 41% of the people receiving food help are children, and only 18% of the clients are homeless. Many, nearly half, are in families with at least one working adult – in a sinking economy that demands at least two incomes at minimum wages – and Perret emphasized that the recession has hit hard. "A lot of people who are in the line [for one of the agency's two mobile pantries] are people who were never in the line before."

The majority of the food (95%) is distributed through the bank's 350 partner agencies, many of them churches or faith-based nonprofits which rely on the bank's resources to serve their neighborhoods. The single largest donor is the U.S. Department of Agriculture (many food aid programs, including food stamps – now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP – serve the double function of subsidizing national agriculture), but the bank also acquires food through manufacturing and retail donors ("food rescue"), food drives, and special events like the Hot Sauce Festival. The partner agencies located within 30 miles pick up their allotments (ordered through a computerized inventory) at the warehouse; beyond that distance, the food is delivered by agency trucks to 21 regional delivery sites in a service area of 19,000 square miles.

The warehouse facility is impressive, with 60,000 square feet of capacity and areas for intake, sorting (largely handled by some of the more than 16,000 annual volunteers), boxing, and outloading – much like any large-scale warehouse operation. Yet the South Congress site has reached its expandable capacity and will be sold in order to make way for a new 12-acre facility near the intersection of highways 183 and 71. "We're now in our 'quiet phase' of fundraising for that project," Perret said, focusing on appeals to foundations and major donors. The new building will be 125,000 square feet, quintuple the available cooler and freezer space (allowing larger and better food storage) and add a production kitchen that will enable better food preservation, preparation, and storage (e.g., cooking and flash freezing of fresh foods).

Perret said the building project will break ground in March 2012 and should be completed by the following spring.

The Lifeline

The facility project is the largest of CAFB's various current programs, which range from adding a third mobile pantry for direct distribution to nutrition education in area schools. Recently, in a partnership with the San Antonio area food bank (there are 19 Texas banks in all), CAFB won the bid on a USDA program to provide 12 million pounds of food annually to a large area of Texas schools. "I believe we'll make money on that project," said Perret, money that will be plowed back into the overall effort to feed the hundreds of thousands of Central Texas residents who too often need direct, emergency food aid. "This food is a lifeline for a short period of time," Perret said, "when people are in need."

Perret is aware that food aid to the too-large percentage (roughly about a quarter) of the population who otherwise would go without, indirectly acts as a safety-net supplement to an economy that is not providing sufficient jobs at living wages to sustain many of its citizens. One of the agency's major initiatives is to increase enrollment of eligible residents in the federal SNAP program, which not only feeds people but also provides a broader economic stimulus: "For every $5 in SNAP benefits used," reads CAFB's strategic plan, "$9 is generated in local retail communities." As in most such indicators, Texas lags behind other states – only 26% of eligible households are enrolled (the national average is 40%) – and should most of those qualifying take advantage of the program, it would make a huge dent in local hunger and simultaneously focus CAFB's resources on even more clients in need. (And if major local employers would simply commit, as a matter of public responsibility, to pay living wages to all their employees, it would go a long way toward eliminating hunger altogether – alas, we can't wait for that day.)

You can learn a great deal more about all these statistics and programs at the www.austinfoodbank.org, where you can also learn more about the Hot Sauce Festival, buy raffle tickets, or even volunteer for the event, and thereby meet many long-devoted Chronicle volunteers – I'll be with you in spirit, really. It's an efficient, entertaining, and Texas-hot way to give back to your community, and in the bargain learn more of the basics of food economics.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

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Capital Area Food Bank, Hank Perret, John Turner

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