Grocery store patrons are most often concerned with the products they intend to buy and utilize themselves, sorting through meats and dairy products for the most recently packaged, or passing over the dented canned good for one that is easier to open. But that can lead one to wonder of what happens to these items that aren’t as desirable. Depending on the store, it oftentimes ends up in the hands (and bellies) of those who are unable to purchase the product.
Feeding America, the parent organization of the Southeast Texas Food Bank, started a national initiative in 2008 by recruiting stores such as Walmart and Kroger’s to donate goods that are damaged or are near expiration to local food banks, with the Southeast Texas Food Bank being the lucky recipient in this area. This wasn’t the first instance the food bank had in dealing with local grocers – they had already been partnered with HEB and arranged for regular pickups.
The Southeast Texas Food Bank is a supplier to many organizations that give to help others in the Golden Triangle, especially during the holidays.
According to executive director Emelie Irving, more than 16,000 families are fed each month through the rations distributed by the food bank. That equates to about 100,000 meals per month, or more than 4.5 million pounds of food per year.
Retail store liaison Angelique Comeaux said of the 4.5 million pounds received last year, nearly 20 percent came from the food bank’s retail store pick-up program.
“We picked up more than 900,000 pounds of food from 21 different grocery stores last year,” Comeaux said. “I had hoped we could beat that this year and get over a million. As of October, we’ve collected 1,062,000 pounds with a couple months left to go.”
Twice a week, the food bank sends its two refrigerated trucks to locations around Southeast Texas to pick up the products that would have normally been disposed of.
Once it leaves the grocery, it makes its way to the food bank where it is diligently inspected and sorted.
The Southeast Texas Food Bank has programs available all year to about 130 area nonprofits in eight different counties, but the majority of assistance is provided during the holiday season.
“They can place an order which we fill or we have a retail store open from 8:30 (a.m.) to 3 (p.m.) every day,” said Comeaux. “(The nonprofit’s representative) can come in, get a shopping cart and are able to receive the items we get from the stores. Some things are free – the bread and pastries are free. Some items have a maintenance fee to help offset the cost to go get it from the stores – 16 cents per pound.”
One such organization is Nutrition and Services for Seniors, which provides a hot meal once a day through the Meals on Wheels program. Meals on Wheels services 1,700 elderly citizens a day, 1,200 of which are homebound. Elaine Schellenberger, Nutrition and Services executive director, said it takes the effort of more than 250 volunteers to deliver to those who would otherwise be without a warm meal.
“It’s not just a meal,” she said. “It’s checking on that person who may otherwise not see anyone at all that day.”
Schellenberger gave an example of the assistance provided by the volunteers.
“We had one of our drivers deliver a meal to an elderly woman just a few days ago,” she said. “She didn’t come to the door and they found her trapped in the restroom. They had to help get her out. They couldn’t get ahold of a family member, so emergency services was called out to check on her.”
Nutrition and Services purchases about 1,800 pounds of food per month from the Southeast Texas Food Bank. Those items are used to stock the pantry or are bagged up and brought to seniors with empty cabinets.
“We send out shelf staple meals so they don’t go hungry – rice, peanut butter, tuna, items that are high in protein, or vegetables. We provide enough for about 10 meals,” she said.
Schellenberger said sending out groceries came as a result of one volunteer who noted there were hardly any items in a client’s home and went out of her way to buy some.
From that volunteer’s sense of giving and care came a snowball effect that has resulted in Nutrition and Services providing an estimated 400 bags of groceries for seniors this holiday season.
“We couldn’t do it without the food bank and our volunteers,” she said. “They are vital to our operation. We want to make sure seniors are taken care of.”