The idea for the Network Advisory Council (NAC) had been kicking around the Food Bank for a while. The majority of food distributed by the Food Bank goes out through a network of more than 250 Partner Agencies spread out over 21 counties in Central Texas, and to keep all those communities fed means that input from partners is critical. The NAC was to be a volunteer group of 15 organizations that was representative of the Partner Agencies in the Food Bank’s network to provide input and feedback, strengthen relationships and help build network capacity to better address hunger in Central Texas. In 2019, invitations started to go out to select partners asking them to join the new committee, followed by an application for additional agencies interested in participating. By the end of 2019, 16 agencies were on board and ready to take on their new responsibility.
The first NAC meeting took place in January of 2020. Representatives from Partner Agencies and Food Bank staff discussed the future of produce distribution, Partner Agency trainings, advocacy and public policy updates, research and evaluation to better serve clients, and what the ideal partnership between the Food Bank and network members looked like. Plans were made for working groups and the next meeting, but 2020 had a curveball in store.
In mid-March, as the COVID-19 pandemic began to sweep the nation, it became apparent that food distribution models in Central Texas communities had to change, and they had to change fast. Thousands of people were out of work and needed emergency food assistance, large gatherings had been prohibited, and the safety of the staff and volunteers that make hunger relief possible were paramount. The Food Bank swiftly jumped into action revising their mobile pantry model to include a drive-through focus and adding special large scale distributions to meet the increased need, but all of the 250+ Partner Agencies had to quickly pivot as well. The NAC became crucial to understanding the challenges partners were facing, brainstorming solutions and sharing updates with the network.
“Once COVID hit, the NAC members immediately jumped into action and prioritized weekly, then bi-weekly and now monthly calls and communications to ensure we can all support each other and the broader field as the COVID-19 situation continues to unfold,” said Emily De Maria, Chief Programs Officer with the Central Texas Food Bank. “They have given selflessly of their own time and energy all to ensure that CTFB has the in-the-moment feedback from the field to ensure we can support the entire network.”
By the time the second scheduled meeting rolled around in June, the committee members had been working together closely for months. They discussed their biggest wins, lessons learned, and what the future might look like. No doubt, having to rise to the challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic brought the whole network closer together, illustrating the importance of committees like the NAC and opening up lines of communication among partners and the Food Bank.
“In some ways we’ve had a crash course in working together and getting to know each other as a Council and we can say without hesitation this is a group of strategic and dedicated leaders in the fight against hunger! It is our honor and privilege to work with such committed community champions,” said De Maria. “We are looking forward to many years of collaboration.”