DALLAS (AP) – Jackie Eaton and Allison Anderson sit down to a spaghetti lunch in their Cedar Hill home. As the couple wait for their daughters to join them at the table, they say a grateful prayer for the food.
That food — the pasta, the sauce, the garlic bread — has taken a long journey to end up on their table. As far as the couple, and others like them, know, it was a gift from the Cedar Hill Food Pantry. In fact, the ingredients took a winding path, from stores and donation bins, trucks and storage warehouses, so that a simple meal could be prepared in Eaton and Anderson’s kitchen.
Many families donate food to the North Texas Food Bank; many families receive the help of food pantries. But few on either end know what happens with that food in between.
“I never had to have help before we went to the food pantry,” Eaton said, stirring the spaghetti sauce. “I didn’t know what to expect.”
Rewind to two weeks before that lunch, before Eaton and Anderson ever set foot in the Cedar Hill Food Pantry, on Houston Street in Cedar Hill. Then, the ingredients for their lunch were merchandise at local supermarkets. When the goods weren’t sold, they were donated to the North Texas Food Bank. There, they were carefully stored to protect their shelf life until they became part of a shipment to the Cedar Hill Food Pantry. (The North Texas Food Bank, which turns 30 this year, distributed 29.6 million pounds of food in 2011 to 300 agencies, including the Cedar Hill Food Pantry.)
The spaghetti, sauce and meat could have come from any of the dozens of local stores that partner with the food bank. Including, for example, Kroger.
Kroger’s director of consumer affairs, Gary Huddleston, said the chain’s North Texas stores donated 1 million pounds of food to the North Texas Food Bank in 2011.
“Most of it is food that would have ended up in landfills,” said Huddleston, while walking through the Kroger at Wynnewood Village in Oak Cliff. As he spoke, several employees carted around boxes of food being taken off the shelves.
It wasn’t expired. Much of it was simply overstock that needed to go to make room for newer food.
One crate held plastic gallon containers of milk. The milk wasn’t sour. It would be good for about two more weeks, but a Kroger policy put it on the path to the food bank: Kroger allows only two expiration dates to be stocked at a time.
“So, if there’s a third date, we have to get it out of here,” Huddleston said. “It’s perfectly good milk, so we give it to the food bank.”
Bins at the back of the store — those secret areas behind the giant doors that say “Employees Only” — hold many of the items that were taken off shelves: bread, soup, noodles, sauce, cookies. Some bins in bedroom-size freezers hold boxes of meat that are past their “best if sold by” date, but still perfectly edible.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration allows grocery stores to sell meat after that date has passed, but most corporations have polices requiring its removal.
“But the meat has a shelf life of six more months if it’s frozen properly,” said Paul Wunderlich, chief operating officer of the North Texas Food Bank.
The freezer at Kroger is kept between zero and minus 10. After a North Texas Food Bank driver, Stephen Howard, picks up nonperishable items at the store, his last stop is the freezer, where he loads meat onto his refrigerated truck.
Meanwhile, Eaton and Anderson, high school sweethearts, had been settled into their Cedar Hill home for about seven months. The couple had two daughters when they were young and then separated for several years. They were reunited after Eaton, a massage therapy student, returned to Texas from Virginia with their daughters.
She and Anderson, a part-time worker for catering companies, fell a few months behind on their TXU Energy bills. With hardly enough money to feed themselves and their kids, they felt the warnings about getting their lights turned off were not as important as finding money for food.
Eaton called the city’s information line. “They said we should go to a food pantry, and they could help us with our electric bill,” she said, adding that she didn’t know food pantries could do more than provide food.
The couple made an appointment at the Cedar Hill Food Pantry.
As they waited for that appointment, the North Texas Food Bank was processing the food that the family would soon receive.
At the loading dock of the North Texas Food Bank, Howard, the truck driver, unloaded his shipment, which included the ingredients that would become spaghetti and meat sauce for Eaton and Anderson.
When the garage door at the dock opens, a giant fan called an “air curtain” blows air outward at about 25 mph. The blast is strong enough to knock someone over.
The fans keep bugs, dirt and dust out of the 100,000-square-foot warehouse.
“There are so many little things that are involved in making sure the food is safe,” Wunderlich said.
When donations arrive from stores, employees at the food bank first unload the frozen meat, quickly. It’s stored in a giant, 11,000-square-foot freezer at the back of the warehouse.
Volunteers, dressed in quilted coats and oversize pants provided by the food bank, sort the meats in the freezer, while others sort nonperishables — including spaghetti sauce and boxes of pasta.
“We’re looking at things that look discolored or are open,” said Rebecca Shannon, 31, a volunteer working in the freezer. “If we see that, we discard the meat.”
Shannon, a nursing student at El Centro College, said she hopes the work she’s doing will “help people who need it.” She said she could imagine the client: a family hungry for a good meal.
A family like Eaton, Anderson and their children.
The spaghetti, sauce and ground meat were headed their way on a recent Friday. A driver for Cedar Hill Food Pantry, Jimmy Turner, arrived at the North Texas Food Bank warehouse. He picked up two boxes of meat, and then chose some juice and snacks, along with a few other nonperishables: spaghetti, soups and sauces.
He packed everything into the bed of his pickup, covering the boxes of meat with a black freezer blanket for the 15-minute trip to Cedar Hill.
That’s when Eaton and Anderson arrived at the food pantry. As volunteers prepared a shopping cart of food for them to take home, the two spoke with Gene Sims, executive director of the Cedar Hill Food Pantry.
A volunteer and board member, Allison Duke, pointed out that Sims would be helping the couple, visiting the food pantry for the first time that day. In addition to food, Sims was able to get them some assistance in paying their overdue electric bill.
“There’s been a change of people who come to us,” Duke said. “Some of them have careers. They’ve just needed a little help these past two years.”
“Oh, they’ve been so helpful,” said Eaton. “We got what we came here for. We’re so grateful.”
A week later, the two prepared the last of their food from the week before: the spaghetti lunch. Then they called their two daughters, Allison and Allisa, for the meal. A third child, a son, was at school.
“They knew we were hard workers and we really needed help,” Anderson said of the people at the food pantry. “It’s like a cycle. If you do good to others, it comes back around to you. It’s been coming back around, thanks to the food pantry.”
Sims said she’s never had to turn down any qualified family seeking food, even though the number of applicants has doubled since this time last year. The pantry serves an average of 120 families a week.
“It seems that whenever we give our last bags of food to a family at the front door,” she said, “there are more bags of food coming in through the back. God always provides.”
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)