The Killeen Food Care Center received 103,000 pounds of food during last month’s annual Food for Families drive, but it’s only a fraction of the 2.3 million pounds distributed to clients this year.
Ann Farris, co-director of the pantry, said its largest food drive helps provide about 1,500 Thanksgiving and 500 Christmas baskets on top of its regular operations.
The center is supported by 20 local churches, grants, H-E-B, Walmart and Sam’s Club and other donors.
Farris said nearly 40 percent of the center’s donations come from individuals.
The center also depends on Capital Area Food Bank for contributions and food purchases. The nonprofit agency in Austin provides food to more than 300 partner agencies in Central Texas.
According to its website, Capital Area provided more than 22 million pounds of food to its partner agencies in its 2012 fiscal year.
Sara LeStrange, spokeswoman for Capital Area, said the Killeen Food Care Center received more than 900,000 pounds of food in 2012 from the food bank.
The Food Care Center receives three kinds of donations from Capital Area — Hope packages, which are free and designated for senior citizens; fresh fruits and vegetables, which are also free donations through Capital Area’s Fresh Food for Families program; and the weekly orders it places.
Farris said the center pays a “small maintenance fee” for its orders with Capital Area Food Bank.
LeStrange said the “shared maintenance fee” helps Capital Area share the costs of things like keeping large freezers running so it can continue to aid as many organizations in Central Texas as possible.
Farris said through its partnership with Capital Area Food Bank the food center can maximize its dollars because $1 provides seven meals.
Nearly 80,000 people depended on the Food Care Center in its 2013 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30 — about 6,000 more than the previous year.
No requirements have to be met to receive food from the center. Anyone with a need can benefit from its donations.
“Our goal is to stand in the gap for families who are hungry,” Farris said. “If someone is hungry, they can have food.”
Clients can use the center once a month and receive enough food to provide three meals a day for 10 days.
Farris said about 25 percent of the people who visit the food center are one-time users, and about 20 percent are military, which she said is a “hot-button topic.”
“People will say ‘Well, they have a job; why do they need food?,’” she said. “Well, a good number of them are young, they have families, and sometimes a significant number of children. Sometimes they just make decisions that back them into a corner. Things just get tight sometimes and they need our help.”
In the food center’s 2013 fiscal year, 3,101 clients were military; a decrease from 7,418 in 2012 and 5,277 in 2011.
Over the past five years, the center distributed food to an average of 68,412 clients annually. Of those clients, 22,589, or 32 percent, were families.
The center has 55 regular volunteers who help facilitate the process as individuals go through the warehouse selecting food.
“It’s not complex work,” Farris said. “Usually, it’s just a matter of teaching someone what happens at the station they will be working. They make sure the people get what they need.”
Several volunteers are retired military officers and several more are teachers.
“For the most part, our volunteers recruit each other,” Farris said. “They tell their friends. It’s mostly through relationships that we recruit volunteers.”
On average, the center costs $305,000 per month to operate, Farris said.
Part of the pantry’s operations include keeping an eye on food safety.
Farris said although it is possible for spoiled food to be distributed, it’s rare and monitored closely.
“We follow the food guidelines that are provided by the (Bell County) Health Department,” she said. “The health department also does routine announced and unannounced inspections of the facility.”
She said temperature gauges on the freezer and coolers are read twice daily to ensure proper operation.
“Our fresh fruits and vegetables come from Austin on a trailer,” she said. “We go through them when they arrive and throw out anything that can’t be used. The rest is put out for our clients to take.”
The toughest months for the food pantry are June, July and August, Farris said.
“That is when children are out of school,” she said. “They don’t have access to free or reduced lunches like they did during the school year. So the need increases during the summer months.”
The number of clients increases by an average of 128 per month during the summer.
Farris said the center plans for times of increased need “the best it can,” but sometimes it comes up short.
Since Farris and her husband, Gerald, began running the center in 2005, there have been two times when the food bank struggled to meet demand.
“Twice we have been significantly short and needed help,” she said. “The community responded with donations. They stepped up and helped us out.”
Killeen’s steadily growing population also presents the center with challenges. When Farris started, she said there were about 40 families going through per day. Currently, the average caseload is 130 families per day.
“The challenge is huge in terms of a growing populations,” she said. “A lot of times it’s people just coming into town and they don’t have a job yet, or they are trying to pay all of the deposits you have to pay when first moving.”
Farris said most of the time the need is temporary, but for some residents it becomes a long-term need.
“As our challenges continue to grow, so does the support we receive,” she said. “This is a faith-based ministry. We exercise our faith in terms of having enough to take care of these people, and when there isn’t, we ask for help. That’s when the community responds.”