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Inside the North Texas Food Bank’s Thanksgiving Operation

During the holidays, the North Texas Food Bank and its hundreds of volunteers hold the line for the food insecure.
| |Photography by Chris Plavidal
canned goods
Chris Plavidal

During any given shift, of which there are two a day, about 1,500 boxes are packed with shelf-stable food items at the North Texas Food Bank. Each box generally weighs about 25 pounds. At 1.2 pounds per meal, that means one volunteer shift will produce about 32,000 meals. For Thanksgiving, though, the boxes are packed with up to 45 pounds. Last November, the nonprofit distributed 11.8 million meals. “Volunteers really are the hearts and hands of our organization because they provide a value,” says Kim Morris, director of community partner relations. “That’s funding that we’re able to save to procure turkeys, for example, instead of having to pay resources to pack boxes.”

Most Americans start shopping for Thanksgiving meals about a week or two before the feasting begins. Sometimes that means running to the nearest grocery store to find a pecan pie with a perfectly golden crust or waiting in lines that snake through the aisles while carrying cans up to your chin. But if you’re aiming to prepare, say, thousands of meals, a few trips to the grocery store aren’t going to cut it.

That is the challenge facing the North Texas Food Bank every year. Thanksgiving is one of its largest meal distributions. The food-centered holiday isn’t always attainable for those who are food insecure, which includes about 700,000 North Texans, 250,000 of which are children. Before the pandemic, the organization delivered an average of 7.3 million meals a month; during the pandemic, that number climbed to about 12 million. Since March of this year, due to inflation, there’s been an 18 percent monthly increase in meals distributed. Helping to close the food need gap is an ongoing effort, but the holidays pose a special challenge. 

Talking Turkey: NTFB budgets about $300,000 for turkeys, which covers the cost of 13,000 birds. About 750 will be used for its November distribution. North Texas Food Bank

Anne Readhimer, vice president of community impact at NTFB, begins sourcing Thanksgiving turkeys from vendors in March. In the poultry industry, eggs need to hatch, and the birds need time to grow, so getting in the door as soon as possible is critical. “This year was a tighter market for poultry because of the avian influenza outbreak,” she says. “There were fewer birds available, and birds were more expensive.”

NTFB budgets about $300,000 for the protein, which covers the cost of 13,000 turkeys. About 750 will be used for the organization’s November distribution, and the rest will go to partner agencies in North Texas. Once the turkeys have been secured, Readhimer spends the rest of the year sourcing other food items such as grains and canned fruits and vegetables through other channels.

As part of the federal government’s Emergency Food Assistance Program, which helps supplement the diets of low-income Americans, NTFB is eligible to order food from the United States Department of Agriculture. Readhimer’s team keeps an eye on the USDA product lists throughout the year to order seasonal items, such as canned pumpkin, in bulk. 

North Texas Food Bank
North Texas Food Bank

Most of the product is donated by other vendors or purchased using donations from the community. “We have some fantastic retail partners and other manufacturing partners, where we get the bulk of our food through those donated resources,” Readhimer says. About 50 percent of the nonprofit’s operational funds, around $20 million, comes in the last three to four months of the year. 

During the pandemic, the organization delivered an average of 12 million meals a month.

Erica Yaeger, the chief external affairs officer, helps manage the 30,000 annual volunteers. During the holiday season, the packing floor of NTFB’s Plano warehouse is filled with somewhere between 200 to 250 volunteers from Tuesday through Saturday. Once the boxes are packed, a fleet of trucks will bring them to distribution centers, food banks, and pantries throughout the 13 counties NTFB serves. 

Supplying the Thanksgiving table isn’t really the point; meeting the needs of those without regular access to food all year round is what matters. Crossroads Community Services, a food pantry whose clientele is made up of 78,000 people in southern Dallas, receives about 80 percent of its food from NTFB. This year, president and CEO Benaye Wadkins Chambers says the agency is planning to limit the amount of food per client. 

“What we’ve seen in the past few years is a doubling of folks who are looking to come to the pantry,” she says. “This is a time of year that’s centered on food. The children are out of school, and so there’s extra meals to provide. There will be families who are not showing up for these distributions in the next few months, but they will be there in January and February and every month after that. This network is critical to ensuring that we are addressing the issue of food insecurity in a very robust but collaborative way.” 

This story originally appeared in the November issue of D Magazine with the headline, “Assembly Required.” Write to [email protected]


Nataly Keomoungkhoun

Nataly Keomoungkhoun

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Nataly Keomoungkhoun joined D Magazine as the online dining editor in 2022. She previously worked at the Dallas Morning News,…