Feeding Hope Across East Texas
Cook Well

It’s a foggy fall morning and I’m standing in a freezer at the East Texas Food Bank. Communications Director Karolyn Davis points to a ton of white rice, representing the 16,700,000 pounds of food distributed by the East Texas Food Bank in 2012. “We empty this freezer six times a year,” she tells me. It's hard to picture that amount of provisions. And it's harder to imagine the number of East Texans who would go hungry without this food. 

There’s a quiet crisis in the community: one in four East Texas children are at risk for hunger. A hunger study estimates that 57 percent of East Texans must decide between buying food and paying for utilities. With these startling statistics, the food bank has made it a mission to feed hope in 26 counties across East Texas. 

“When you ride through the [East Texas] countryside, you'll see these wonderful towns that are a shadow of what they used to be,” Executive Director Dennis Cullinane said. “A lot of people in the community need help and that's what we're here to do.” 

East Texas Food Bank (ETFB) has developed programs to fit each type of person in the community. They've created the Senior Servings™ Program, which is specialized for homebound seniors in need. To ensure children don't go hungry over the weekend, ETFB created the BackPack Program. Each Friday, children who have been identified as at risk are given a backpack full of
nutritious food.

“We're assured through this partnership that the child has nutritious snacks at home,” Douglass Principal Christy Roach said. “For some families, it's huge. Some parents have to work on the weekend, so we give the kids something like cereal or fruit bars to supplement them over the weekend.” 

One ETFB program in particular has gained national attention. This July, The New York Times featured the East Texas Food Bank’s garden, which is a partnership with the Smith County Sheriff’s Office and the Smith County Agricultural Extension Office. In 2010, Former Sheriff J.B. Smith read about East Texas Food Bank's efforts and felt called to take action. “He saw that he had the volunteer labor and people at the Smith County Sheriff's department could help run the garden,” Davis said. “So he was really the visionary behind it all.” 

Now, Smith County Jail inmates have the opportunity to serve their time tending to a four-acre garden on the outskirts of Tyler. “We had someone graciously donate the land for our usage,” Davis explained. “Now the inmates are out there all the time working. They prep the soil, do the planting and harvesting and deliver to the food bank.” 

The garden has produced more than 200,000 pounds of produce in the past three years. And on November 1, ETFB will break ground on a new garden site. This program is life-changing for the inmates, as they earn three days of credit toward their sentence for each day they work. “We benefit the people who need the food, as well as the inmates,” Sheriff Larry Smith said. “And to be honest with you, the deputies get a sense of accomplishment. It's a win-win all the way around.” 

While inmates tend to the garden, a sheriff's deputy is always supervising their work. The more time inmates spend in the garden, the less time they spend behind bars, which saves Tyler taxpayers money in the long run. “I love the connection to the sheriff's department and being able to give these guys an opportunity to get out and work with their hands,” Cullinane told The New York Times. “Anything we can do to break the cycle of poverty.East Texas Food Bank is always looking for volunteers, especially during the holidays. Children who participate in free or reduced lunches are at risk of going hungry when school is not in session. Davis said the most useful type of donation is monetary, but food drives and warehouse volunteers are always needed. This Thanksgiving season, recruit your children to help put together a few items for East Texas Food Bank. Not only will this help the food bank feed others, it will develop a new generation of givers. 

“Most kids want to help put together the food for other children,” Davis said while touring the warehouse. “It's important for kids
to do that!” 

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