David and Lauren Mercado can survive on Ramen noodles.

But their 2-year-old son, Terry, needs fresh fruits, vegetables and nutrients to ensure he grows into a strong and healthy boy.

“We have a little bit of extra fat stored up, but he doesn’t,” Lauren said, pointing to her son. “He needs food to grow and get bigger.”

Sitting in the corner of a room at the Food Care Center in Killeen, the couple waited with about 30 other families Thursday for their turn to go “shopping” for free canned goods, fruits, vegetables, dairy and meat products to get them through the next month.

Although Lauren works, David is unemployed and the family doesn’t make enough money to feed themselves three healthy meals a day.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports many Americans, like the Mercados, experience food insecurity, which means the intake of enough food to maintain an active and healthy lifestyle is reduced for one or more household member, resulting in disrupted eating patterns.

Texas had food insecurity levels above the U.S. average from 2009 to 2011, with 18.5 percent of the state’s population experiencing food insecurity, according to the USDA.

The Food Care Center not only tries to help alleviate the number of food insecure residents, but also focuses on nutrition, providing options from every sector of the food pyramid.

“When we first got here, we were giving out a lot of junk food because that’s the food you can get real easy,” said Gerald Farris, co-executive director of the Food Care Center.

The center, a faith-based nonprofit that provides groceries to people with a lack of adequate food supply, still gives out bread and sweets, but also offers fresh fruits, vegetables, dairy and meat to clients in need.

The center distributed more than 2.3 million pounds of food during the 2012 fiscal year.

Families can go once a month and receive an amount of food that’s based on how many members they have. The center feeds between 1,300 and 2,300 families a month. Between 3,200 and 5,000 are adults, while between 1,500 and 2,800 are children.

“We’re helping four times more people now than we were when I started (eight years ago),” Farris said. “We’ve seen a real influx in folks coming to visit.”

Getting help

The Mercados decided to apply for food stamps about a year and a half ago when Terry needed more than just breast milk. With food stamps, Lauren can provide her son with healthier food options.

“We’re making sure he gets food,” she said. “That means that we don’t necessarily get enough food sometimes. It’s hard.”

The Mercados are part of a growing trend in Bell County and throughout the state. The number of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamp, participants in the county rose from 42,416 residents in 2010 to 46,981 residents in 2011, according to the USDA.

Although it’s great to get help from the government and nonprofits, Lauren wishes she didn’t have to.

“If we didn’t have (Terry), I probably wouldn’t do food stamps because I don’t want to have to rely on someone else for money for food,” she said.

When the couple missed their deadline to reapply more than a month ago, they started running out of food and decided to turn to the Food Care Center. Mercado said the center’s help is “immense and immeasurable.”

“We got food at the end of last month and that really helped carry us through to this month,” she said.

From the elderly resident on a fixed income to the working poor with large families, the reasons residents come to the center for help depend on their circumstances. Farris believes food banks will always be needed because of human nature.

“We have so many cultures in Killeen, and different cultures put different emphasis on different things,” he said. “If put in a poverty situation as a youngster, some folks will try to (change that) and some won’t.”

Growing up, Lauren participated in several food drives with her family, but never really knew what happened to the canned goods she dropped off.

Now that she knows, Lauren is thankful for the Food Care Center.

“We would literally be starving if we didn’t get food from here,” she said.

Contact Sarah Rafique at srafique@kdhnews.com or (254) 501-7549. Follow her on Twitter at KDHreporter.

I'm the education reporter at the Killeen Daily Herald. Follow me on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SarahRafique

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