Kara Hedlund is the Mobile Pantry Supervisor at the Central Texas Food Bank. Kara’s team serves about 15,000 Central Texans in need each month at 40 Mobile Food Pantry sites.
How long have you worked at the Food Bank?
About 16 months.
How often do you go out with the Mobile Food Pantries?
Right now I’m at distributions eight days a month, but depending on what’s going on with a site I may jump on the truck for additional visits. The two Mobile Pantry Coordinators are out five days a week, one distribution a day, Tuesday through Saturday.
What’s the earliest that the coordinators get here to go out with our trucks?
6:15 a.m. is the earliest, and our drivers get here around 4 a.m. in the morning.
You all work hard! And it’s a physical job too. Can you describe that a little bit? You’re lifting heavy food and it can be in the heat, in the rain and the cold.
For me, nothing shows how high the need is more than someone who’s willing to wait in those difficult conditions for food. So you work that much harder to make it quick and easy for them. We know the heavy food we’re lifting is nourishing somebody, so we’ll do what it takes to make this happen.
We try to work quickly and safely, and we’re always looking for areas of improvement – how could I make this easier on our clients? At some sites, it’s you and the driver carrying the food to the clients’ cars because the volunteers are elderly, and then there’s a couple where it’s just a beautiful, well-oiled machine! In the summer we really stay on top of the volunteers to drink water and keep hydrated.
With the rain, we have to keep safety in mind and also make sure the product is safe. There was one site where there was no other option than to hand-unload and distribute from inside a tiny little community center. We all worked together and made it work. You have to come up with solutions all the time.
What’s changed with the Mobile Pantry program since you first started?
Now we’re starting to do mobile fresh-food-only distributions. It’s our Fresh Food For Families program, but it’s mobile.
How has the reception been?
I was shocked! So many people came out for the distribution. Especially in the brand new sites, people didn’t have much information other than the fact that there would be fresh produce. The overwhelming response is, “Thank you, we’ve been needing access to fresh produce. We like it, our kids like it.” At many sites we’re serving over 175 households at a time.
It also has a dual benefit to our warehouse. The last thing we want to do is compost these fresh fruits and vegetables if we can’t get them out fast enough. And at some sites we’re doing direct donor pickup so the food never even comes back to the Food Bank for processing. The site leaders pick up from a retailer and go directly to our site and distribute what they have just received. It’s more efficient and people are very excited about it.
What else is new?
Recently we had our very first regional meetings with all of our program partners. We’ve also added eight new Mobile Pantry sites, and we have a beautiful new truck.
Why do regional meetings with program partners?
We want to show appreciation to our partners – to remind them that even though the distribution is one day out of their month, we know they’re actively making sure their community knows this program exists, recruiting volunteers, etc. We reported back to them on their impact – for example, this is how many volunteers you had, how many pounds we distributed with the programs at your site, how many households you were able to feed.
We’ve also had some policies change in the past year and want to make sure everybody understands why. Certain policies didn’t exist when a lot of our partners originally came on board.
And they talk about best practices between sites. It’s great when our site leaders can come together and share ideas in person. We’ve been doing these meetings regionally because we know that in our 21 county service area not everybody can make it to Austin. Quite a few of our partners say they’re not going anywhere near Austin traffic! We have one meeting at Lake Buchanan, one in Mart, one in Lexington and one here at the Food Bank.
You mentioned the new truck. This is the first of three, right? We’re going to add two more, eventually.
Eventually! The current question is whether we should add bigger or smaller Mobile Food Pantries to our fleet.
What are the benefits of a small truck versus a big truck for your program?
Accessibility to sites is a big deal. A 48-foot trailer can’t fit in a lot of areas that we need to go to. Some of the rural areas don’t have parking lots and there are a lot of gravel roads. That’s where the Wheels Of Sharing truck, our original Mobile Food Pantry, is really great.
That’s the smaller truck.
Yes, it only holds up to 4,000 pounds, which serves about 120 households. But the larger trucks can hold much more than that.
So it’s a matter of accessibility versus volume.
Where are we adding our new Mobile Pantry sites?
One is at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Austin, right down the street from the new Food Bank. Our first distribution there was in August and was specifically geared towards veterans. Our site leader and the program partner is the Supportive Services for Veteran Families department within the VA. We’re actively looking at how we get food into the hands of homeless veterans, working with their case workers. We’re also adding sites this year through partnerships with school districts in Del Valle and Lockhart, and we have a site onboarding in Pflugerville at Shoreline Church. That’s a high need area where we’ve unfortunately already had two partners that had to close.
Your team is out there every day directly serving people who need help with food. You’re the face of our mission in many ways. What have you seen that inspires you and keeps you going?
Our senior clients, when they tell you how little they’re living on. As you’re walking everything to their car for them, they’re telling you, “If I didn’t have access to this food, I don’t know what I would do at the end of this month.” They say just how thankful they are.
Specifically, I have a client who had a work injury and has been trying to get disability, but it’s not enough to get by. He lives in a rural area and has been taking care of his mother who is elderly, and they didn’t have any income. He couldn’t work and neither could she. They just tried their best to make it to the Mobile Food Pantries in their county to get by, and with the help of churches and family members, that’s how they got food.
I’m always blown away by how many of the volunteers, as I get to know them, are clients as well. They’re so dedicated to being a part of the community. I had one volunteer I worked with for months. After the distribution he was going through the line to get his own food, and I asked him, “You don’t want any meat today?” He said, “I don’t have anywhere to put it. I’m homeless.” I had no idea that he was living in a tent. And still, he came to volunteer and for three solid hours was of service to his community. All along he knew that waiting until the end of distribution he might not get certain food items if we ran out – or there might not be any food left at all. Volunteering was just feeding him in a different way.