In the 16 years Jan Pruitt has been the CEO of the North Texas Food Bank, food distribution has grown 300% and the "ReThink Hunger" program has succeeded in providing more nutritious meals to food-insecure families across North Texas. Recently I spoke with Pruitt about the food bank's $7 million goal, leadership and what it takes to provide 130,000 nutritious meals a day.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions about people who need help putting food on the table? That they're takers. That they're just coming and taking help wherever they can get it. But the truth is that the majority of people that go to a food pantry have at least one job and in many cases more than one job.
Another growing segment that we see are senior citizens on a fixed income.
Also, people think we give most of our food to the homeless - only about nine percent of our food goes to the homeless population. 91 percent goes to families and seniors.
Do needs change during the holidays for hunger-insecure families? I think what's interesting is that most people think of hunger during the holidays because it's a season of giving. But, our highest need time is during the summer months when kids are out of school.
During the holiday days what agencies are trying to do is provide that special meal, like an actual holiday meal. The NTFB purchases 8 tractor-trailer loads of turkeys. We also do special turkey drives, like the kids in Coppell and Highland Park both did turkey drives. So, it's not that the numbers go up so much, it's that the quality of the food changes.
During the summer break, the NTFB provides extra food for kids, does the same go for the winter holiday break? We double up on the food for kids backpack program any time there's a holiday. But, most of the time the kids are being fed through the pantry programs during the holidays. You have to remember that during the holidays food insecure families have to put three meals on the table at a time they've been struggling just to put one meal on the table. It really stretches their budget.
In addition to trying to buy gifts during the holidays... That is also a big factor. The good news is that we're having a really moderate winter, utility costs aren't as high and people aren't missing work because of bad weather, which can be a really big factor. So, that's actually really good news right now.
What are some of the greatest misconceptions about the North Texas Food Bank? The thing people most often don't understand is that we're not an actual food pantry. People think we give food out of our front door, but we don't. We are actually a food distribution company wrapped in an altruistic skin. We're a food distribution center for the non-profit sector.
Also, people don't realize we have almost 175,000 square feet of space for refrigerated and dry food storage.
Do you cook any meals at the NTFB? We have a 3,000 square foot kitchen and the labor force is provided by the women at the Dawson State Jail, who produce 10,000 meals a week, which is the equivalent of a Stouffer's size meal. So, if a family is going into a pantry, they'll probably get a couple frozen casseroles in addition to cans of food. Can you explain a little bit about the ReThink Hunger program? ReThink Hunger has three specific pillars: healthier, smarter and stronger. The primary focus of the North Texas Food Bank is to provide more nutritious food to people that are food insecure because that's a very vulnerable part of our population. We feel like hunger is only a symptom of a bigger problem, which is poverty.
So, families that are struggling with money sometimes have to choose between paying their electric bill over their food bill. Those limited calories have a lot of impacts on our community, including an educational impact. Ask any teacher.
There's also a health aspect. Young children that are malnourished don't grow as tall and have more health problems later in their lives.
There's been some real interesting research done in the hunger/obesity link. Children that lack nourishment in utero have more tendencies to be obese later in life.
How do you find a balance between quantity and quality of nutrition? We are always looking at the quality of our food - do we have the most nutritious food we can provide? Then, we also look at where we provide that food. We're going directly to schools and health clinics with pallets of fresh produce because we feel we can get the most bang for our buck by getting the food directly to the families.
Do you have any New Year's resolutions for the NTFB? Our biggest single goal is 49 million nutritious meals by June of 2013. Last year our goal was to hit 42 million nutritious meals and we actually hit 47 million. Now, I'm telling you that when I say 49 million "nutritious" meals, we don't count pounds that aren't nutritious. So, if we get a pallet of, say, soda pop, we still handle and distribute it, but it doesn't go towards our goal.
When you say 49 million meals, how much food is that? Think about this, it takes 1.24 pounds to make a meal. So, we're handling approximately 60 million pounds of food to make those meals.
How much money do you have to raise to hit that goal? We have to hit every fundraising goal we have for November and December, which is $7 million in order to provide those 49 million meals by June. Right now we're $1.4 million behind. When we don't hit our goals that means fewer meals on the streets. After a career working in non-profits, what have you learned about keeping your staff motivated? I've worked in three different hunger relief organizations. My first job was as an agency director, so I sat across the table and listened to why people couldn't feed their family. I did that for 11 years. For 2 years I was at the Texas Food Bank Network as CEO trying to organize 19 food banks across Texas. Now I've worked 16 years at the North Texas Food Back as CEO.
First of all, the mission alone is motivating to people. They come to work at the food bank because they care that there are people in our community that go hungry. That's kind of a built-in motivator.
But, I will tell you that when you do this year after year and then you hit a period of time like we've hit over the last four years when there is so much need, it just seems like we can't try enough. With 49 million meals, we're providing 130,000 meals a day, but we need to provide 300,000 meals a day.
As a leader, I make sure people understand they are making a difference. Yes, there's more need out there. But think about if we weren't here and weren't doing this, how much worse would things would be?
We say this all the time, "Our work matters." I call myself the chief cultural officer because it is my job to make sure every one up and down our organization feels inspired by our mission: we passionately pursue a hunger-free community.
Our work will never be done. We never say, "Check. We've done it." Everyday we have to do more than we did yesterday and that's our goal.
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What's the best way to get involved, not just money but also by giving time? The best way to donate anything - time, cans, money - is to go to our website NTFB.org. We have all kinds of ways to get involved. It can be as simple as going to certain retailers to buy your groceries, or going to a restaurant. Everybody has deals where a dollar goes to the food bank and people need to know that a dollar equals three meals in our world.
How many volunteers does the food bank need in a week? We need about 700 volunteers a week to make our operation work. There are three core processes volunteers help with: building boxes for seniors, backpacks for kids and sorting through the food that ends up on a pantry shelf.
I invite people out because it is your community food bank. So come out, take a tour, learn about the food bank and we'll figure out a way to plug you in to the process.