November 22, 2017
Shared from San Antonio Express-News Business Reporter
Food Bank called region’s most efficient nonprofit
The mammoth campus of the San Antonio Food Bank feels every bit like the distribution hub it is, buzzing with activity both on the inside and out.
Workers each hour bring in semi-truck loads of unsold groceries along with deliveries of produce from area farms and shipments of unserved meals from restaurants and corporate banquets. About the same pace is kept with what goes out to senior centers, food pantries and after-school programs for children whose parents may be working multiple low-paying jobs.
“There’s never a slow time for us,” said CEO Eric Cooper, the man at the helm of a nonprofit that takes in about $124.7 million in annual revenue.
Like any CEO, Cooper is tasked with keeping the money flowing. But running a charity also means being able to withstand public scrutiny. It’s a big deal for him to be able to report that administrative overhead is kept to 2 percent of the budget, he said. That means 98 cents out of every dollar goes to feeding people who would otherwise go hungry. And each dollar is leveraged into $13 of food, which equates to seven meals or about 10 pounds of food, he said.
“We’re the most efficient nonprofit in our community, and so that gives us a bit of an edge when it comes to donors that really want to leverage their investment in the best way,” Cooper said. “The fact that it’s meeting a basic need is another big part of it. It’s not controversial.”
The weeks leading up to Thanksgiving Day are frenetic ones for the Food Bank.
“It’s really the season of response and giving and sharing, and so that keeps us busy in a really good way,” he said. “And the need rises a little bit during the holidays. When you think of families in times of struggle, the holidays can be a tough time.”
During a recent meeting, he charged staff with imagining how they’d feel if they couldn’t provide the day’s tradition “of turkey and mashed potatoes and gravy and stuffing and maybe some pumpkin pie.”
“If you’re a parent with kids as I’ve talked to, there’s a sense of failure.”
The mission of providing turkeys for every needy family translates to one of the few items the Food Bank will pay market price for. But even that is done with an eye on scale and the bottom line. The best prices for turkeys are going to be the days immediately after Thanksgiving, and that’s when the Food Bank puts in its orders, in a sense playing a turkey futures market for the next year’s need.
Every little bit of income helps, such as the registration fees for Thanksgiving morning’s annual 5k Turkey Trot downtown, where one can either surge with the swiftest or keep a more leisurely pace with all the pets and baby strollers that have become part of the preemptive calorie-burning tradition.
But the holidays aren’t the only busy time, and there’s opportunities for groups or individuals to donate time year-round. Need for example surges during the summer, when schools shutter and children lose access to free or reduced-price breakfasts and lunches. The same happens during holiday breaks.
“We’ve got a big opportunity before the Christmas break to do 20,000 food boxes for school children,” he said. “That will keep us busy.”
The scale of the operation may be surprising, especially to those who don’t think of hunger as a reality in San Antonio and its surrounding counties. It’s main 210,000-square-foot facility sits on a 40-acre campus, of which 25 acres is dedicated to growing food and raising goats, sheep and chickens. The bank distributes $125 million a year in food and grocery products weighing in at about 65 million pounds a year. It all flows through 550 nonprofits in a 16-county area that feed about 58,000 people each week.
There are about 200 employees across multiple locations, to include a smaller Food Bank in New Braunfels and a packing shed in Pearsall that distributes produce and venison via a program called “Hunters for the Hungry.”
That doesn’t count the 40 men in white who on a recent November morning were seen hoisting loads with forklifts as dozens of volunteers from USAA packed boxes of food for the elderly. The men were nonviolent inmates from state correctional facilities, Cooper said, able to gain certificates in warehouse operations or in culinary arts by helping prepare hot meals in the Food Bank kitchen. Those certificates have translated to second-chance job opportunities on the outside.
“That ties back to our ability to run 2 percent (overhead),” Cooper said. “There’s literally 40 guys that are here every day that between our culinary training and our warehouse training are basically like full-time employees.”
Personal donations really do matter, with individual contributions making up 50 percent of its proceeds. Of the remainder, 36 percent came from corporations and organizations, and 14 percent came from foundations.
While donations of food come from all over, there are operational costs for, say, getting a tractor trailer load of cereal from Kellogg’s in Battle Creek, Michigan, or picking up holiday gift turkeys from employees who are vegetarian or will be traveling to be with family and can’t use them. There also are costs to market the programs, whether to would-be donors and volunteers or to families who are facing hard times and may be eligible for not only a box of food but also government assistance programs.
There are programs such as Project H.O.P.E for senior citizens and the Food Bank’s kitchens at Haven for Hope, a shelter for the homeless, and Providence Place, which works with young adults with disabilities. But 54 percent of aid recipients are working people who don’t make enough money to both pay basic bills and buy enough food.
“We think of ourselves as kind of food recyclers,” Cooper said. “You have all this food waste, and then you have hungry families; it doesn’t make sense.”
As for the donor corporations, there are tax write-offs and decreased disposal costs, but there’s also a sense of altruism.
“At the end of the day, I think it’s a social wrong to throw away food. We all feel that, and so the solution is partnering with the food banks so that edible food can get to families in need.”