The Food Bank of the Rio Grande Valley looks and feels like the nerve center of a vibrant community. Everywhere you look, there is sense of coordinated urgency. The warehouse area is constantly teeming with action, from forklifts moving pallets of food, to groups of volunteers cheerfully and carefully sorting food items.
Jacqueline Flores, the director of Development & Donor Services, explains that the regular groups of volunteers from the local community are integral to the successful operation of the Food Bank. It only has 65 actual employees, but the additional help by the volunteers allows the organization to reach up to 64,000 different clients each week with free food assistance.
The majority of the sorting and packing is done by volunteers from local businesses and organizations, as well as participants in the Texas Second Chance program. The Texas Second Chance Program is a joint effort between the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and Feeding Texas members that offers a “second chance” for offenders to develop job skills and give back to the community.
Many local businesses also have a desire to give back to the community, so they support the Food Bank by sponsoring events and holding food drives. This past year, 87 percent of the support for the Food Bank RGV came in the form of donated food.
The Food Bank RGV is the fourth largest in Texas based on distribution. It has over 275 partner agencies in Hidalgo, Willacy, and Cameron counties. All of the food assistance offered by the Food Bank RGV is free for all participants. Through their different programs they are committed to improving lives through food assistance, nutrition education, and access to community services.
The Emergency Food program has the largest impact on the community. Food pantries, homeless shelters, and on-site feeding programs operated by the partner agencies directly feed an average of 64,000 clients each week. The clients are registered with the partner agency, and each week the agency puts in an order online to the Food Bank RGV, which they then pick up after it is packed up for them so they can distribute it to their clients.
There is also an Emergency Food pantry located at the Food Bank RGV building, where individuals and families can come if they need emergency food assistance. It is set up to give them a shopping experience where they can choose from different items.
“We really start seeing more people come in towards the end of the month, especially because that’s when their resources run out,” Flores said. “Many of the families are dealing with a real hardship situation. These situations are sometimes temporary and we help them get themselves out of that as well by offering them help accessing the social services they may need, helping them with the application process.”
The Commodity Supplemental Food Program provides a bag of commodities each month for nearly 10,000 low income seniors over 60.
Operation Kid Pack is operated through elementary and middle schools in low-income areas. Select students are given a backpack with enough food for meals and snacks over the weekend or long breaks from school.
“For the parents, it can be a challenge feeding their children when they’re not in school,” Flores said. According to the Food Bank RGV website, between 1 in 5 and 1 in 7 households in the Rio Grande Valley are food insecure, not knowing where their next meal is coming from. The Summer Food Service Program aims to provide Valley children nutritious meals when school is not in session.
School Tools is a program that helps local teachers stock their classroom with supplies for their students. Teachers from nearly 50 schools that are registered can pay a yearly $20 annual donation, and come get a basket full of supplies each month instead of paying out of their own pocket as many teachers do.
Healthy Living is part of the free nutrition education program where participants are taught how to shop on a budget and cook nutritious meals.
The Mobile Food Program is something the Food Bank RGV is actively trying to grow by searching for grant money. When they can, they assist families living in food deserts by distributing food to them on-site. This program also includes disaster response, distributing food after hurricanes, storms and flooding.
“We have a lot of elderly homebound people that are not able to leave their homes,” Flores said. “A lot of our own employees are delivering the food on their own time to the neighborhoods they live near.”
The Gem Valley Farm program started in 2014, primarily focused on becoming an educational platform for food and health. It is open to the public and anyone can come in and grow their own vegetables in the community garden. The Garden Club holds weekly learning activities on Tuesdays. Eighteen families are currently participating and there is room for more.
Gem Valley Farm has recently partnered with PSJA schools in an eight-week program for teachers where they will learn gardening techniques and principles in order to set up gardens at their school campuses.
The farm has also begun a vegetable prescription program with Hope Family Health Center and Elks Lodge McAllen which aims to improve the health of the Rio Grande Valley community through food.
Currently, the Food Bank RGV is gearing up for its annual Farm Dinner Fundraiser on Jan. 19, where they hope to raise money for farm equipment and funds to continue all the farm programs. The fundraiser will feature a five-course meal prepared by Chef Larry and Jessica Delgado of house. wine. & bistro. and S.A.L.T. The meal will utilize produce from Gem Valley Farm and will be served at the historic Food Bank RGV building.
For more information about the programs offered by Food Bank RGV or opportunities to get involved in their mission to fill the great need in our community, please visit www.foodbankrgv.com.