Eric Cooper moved to San Antonio in 2001 to take over the San Antonio Food Bank and get it on the right path. In his time at the SA Food Bank, the non-profit has raise a lot of money, added many programs, and has made it their mission to provide food for today, food for tomorrow and food for a lifetime. Eric Cooper is heartwarming, loving, and genuinely cares about his mission and the San Antonio Food Bank’s success.
Justin Hill: Hello and Bienvenido, San Antonio. Welcome to The Alamo Hour, discussing the people, places, and passion that make our city. My name is Justin Hill, a local attorney, a proud San Antonian, and keeper of chickens and bees. On The Alamo Hour, you’ll get to hear from the people that make San Antonio great and unique and the best-kept secret in Texas. We’re glad that you’re here.
All right. Welcome to The Alamo Hour. Today’s guest is Eric Cooper. Eric is the executive director of the San Antonio Food Bank and currently serving in somewhat of a role as a little bit of a national spokesperson for food and security as a result of the crisis and as a result of some press that San Antonio got. He joined the San Antonio Food Bank in 2001 and has since taken it from really being on somewhat of a tenuous footing to really a robust, important, and surprisingly, oddly, well-funded nonprofit in the city.
I was doing some research on you. Before this crisis, 58,000 people a week got help. 77 million meals a year, to me, kind of a nerd about things. 2% overhead for y’alls budget. That’s something that unless people really pay attention, you don’t realize how important that is and how really a compliment to your management skills. Thank you for being here. I want to get into some of these things, but thank you for being here. I can’t imagine your time commitment, so I’m glad we got a little bit of it.
Eric Cooper: Hey, super excited to be on the show. It’s a great city and we’re just so privileged to be a part of it.
Justin: I think that’s a great city. That’s why I started this whole thing. You and I were sort of joking how you got these San Antonio stories. I moved here and I’ve met a weird, fascinating array of characters and I was hoping to share that through this show. We haven’t met before, but you’re in such a big spotlight right now. I knew about the San Antonio Food Bank. I’ve learned so much more about it, so I want to talk to you about it. First, I’m going to put you through sort of our top 10 list we go through to get some color commentary on who you are as a person. I’ve read a bunch of your interviews before you got here today. I want to–
Eric: Sorry about that. [chuckles]
Justin: Well, a lot of it, I don’t want to retrace steps. Some of it, I want to get some new information. When and why did you move to San Antonio?
Eric: Well, I’ve been in food banking for about eight years. I actually got my start in Salt Lake City at the Utah Food Bank and then made my way back home to North Texas. I grew up in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. There was an opportunity to serve with the North Texas Food Bank which, at that time, they had their facility in South Oak Cliff. I was there a couple of years and had watched as the San Antonio Food Bank somewhat struggled. We went through about four CEOs in a two-year period. Two of them had gotten fired and the other two had quit. The board was struggling. The food bank was struggling.
I figured I couldn’t screw it up any worse and they offered me the job at that point. I became their youngest executive director. I love an opportunity and I just saw such an opportunity to serve people in need. I knew I was going to dedicate my life towards putting food on the table for families. As I had traveled South Texas and seeing some of our border communities, it’s some of the most extreme poverty in the United States. I knew I wanted to serve an area that had that need. When the opportunity arose, the board offered me the position and I had to take it.
Justin: The rest is history. You’re still here.
Eric: It is. It seems crazy that now, 19 years ago, we were such a small organization. There’s some parts of that that I miss. We had a $1 million cash budget and 18 employees. We were doing about 10 million pounds of food. Today, we got about 250 employees and a $26 million budget.
Eric: We’re pushing, hopefully, 75 to 80 million pounds this year. It’s been a lot of growth, but it’s been stable. San Antonio has just trusted us and built on us. We’re feeding a lot of folks. Unfortunately, there’s a need. San Antonio had struggled prior to COVID. There’s just a super high rate of poverty. When you think about other cities in the United States, San Antonio has, actually, the largest percentage of our population living in poverty, and so COVID just pushed so many new people into that space. Most people don’t probably fully understand the poverty line. Man, if you’re in poverty, you’re really hurting. Those are folks that for a single individual, you’re making less than $10,000 a year. If you’re making 12,000, 13,000, 14,000 a year, then you’re out of poverty. You’re not making it, right?
Justin: Right, yes. The working poor.
Eric: The working poor. That’s the families. That’s kind of our typical client. In this COVID-19 crisis, so many of those families just a paycheck away from being hungry now find themselves in our lines.
Justin: I read a book called Nickel and Dimed. It had to be 20 years ago and it was a fantastic study for– I was a kid at the time and I read that and thought, “How did these–” It really changed my perspective about people who work because people are always looked down upon who needed assistance. When I read that book, I learned these people are working their butts off and even still, they can’t get it together.
I was reading about some of the– Look, there are good stories that are coming out of this. You’re seeing the best in a lot of people. One of the stories I thought was really cute and funny was the girl who gave the lemonade stand money to the food bank. Any other kind of funny stories like that where people have just said, “I don’t have much, but here, you can have it”?
Eric: Yes. Again, there’s room at the table for everyone to fight hunger. I think the COVID-19 crisis, I’ve seen just our community at its best where you’ve got individual philanthropists like Harvey Najim giving three-quarters of a million dollars. USAA giving $1.5 million. Jeff Bezos gave $100 million across the United States to food banks. Just insane generous, kind gifts, but then on the other side, there’s this thought that those that have the least sometimes give the most. It’s just a fact when it comes to percentage of their earnings what they have the ability to do. I’m just humbled by it. Our food drives along the south side of San Antonio usually bring in a few more cans of food. Little Chloe and her lemonade stand or so many people gave their stimulus checks back.
Eric: Probably, the most humbling was a woman gave $40 and left a note that she actually was in a car in the line on April 9th when we were at Traders Village and served 10,000 families. She said, “I sat in the car. I got the food. The food bank didn’t fail me and I was able to nourish myself. The next week, my boss who had laid me off called and said they had a few hours. I could start working.” She said, “Knowing that I was going to get a paycheck, I wanted to pay it forward.”
Eric: She sent in $40. I think that’s really where we sit at the food bank. It’s kind of the crossroad between those that have and those that don’t have. Those that don’t have need a little help, and then those that do have kind of are in this place of caring and sharing. I think they walk away feeling good about the transaction just like those that got the food. It’s pretty cool to be in the middle of that.
Justin: Not a lot of unhappy customers.
Eric: No, no.
Justin: Chloe’s lemonade stand, it’s like a $1,000. I never had that whenever I was a kid. [chuckles]
Eric: Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Lemonade, the price went up.
Justin: You’re from North Texas. I’m from North Texas. We talked about that before the show. I have friends that come to San Antonio. I haven’t lived here as long as you since I was seven for me, but I always say, “Okay. You go to the Alamo. Go do those things, but you need to go see–” Usually, I’ll say the Japanese Tea Garden. I think that told me, “Go see the old missions, not just the Alamo.” What are some of the hidden gems you tell friends or that you think are really just neat hidden gems of San Antonio?
Eric: I have to first just disclose. Being from North Texas, of course, I’m a Cowboys fan. It just comes with being a Texan, but I was never a Mavericks fan. All those years, I just–
Justin: I was.
Eric: There was the era of the Celtics and Lakers, so I probably was cheering for the Celtics a little bit. Coming to San Antonio, I became a huge Spurs fan. You can’t help because they are the real deal. It is just a wonderful tradition of our city. To all those Spurs fans, we’re San Antonio proud. I think our mission is very incredible. Most people don’t realize that the food bank actually has a partnership with the Mission district, the National Park Service with Mission San Juan.
When the missionaries built the missions, they had the farmland that provided all the food to all of the missions. There was this 10-acre plots of land. They were called Suertes. In Spanish, I guess that’s luck and you were in a drawing to get a little parcel. They built the original acequia, which is the oldest water rights in the state of Texas that drafts water off of the San Antonio River and uses that water through topography, irrigate the original farmlands of San Antonio. We had our little 25-acre farm out at the food bank.
It was San Antonio’s largest urban farm. The National Park Service reached out and said, “We want to restore this land back to its original farming capacity. We’ll give you a 20-year lease for a dollar a year if y’all come work the land. You can have all the water you want. You can use the land and then use those crops to help feed San Antonio’s hungry.” Just the triple win. Win for them and a win for us and a win for San Antonio families. Definitely, if you’re on the Mission Trail, you definitely want to see the San Antonio urban farm at Mission San Juan.
Justin: Are you using the original irrigation structure?
Eric: We are. We are, yes.
Justin: Oh, that’s great.
Eric: Yes. There’s a portion of it that we totally do it Mission style and then we did install some pumps to expedite some efficiencies. There’s some drip irrigation and some of the water conservation work that our farmers use, but–
Justin: Can anybody come out and tour it?
Eric: Man, anytime, any day. If you’d like to get in the dirt, there’s always something to be planted or harvested. We’ve got a pretty good-sized citrus orchard that we’re trying to get started out there.
Justin: Any bees?
Eric: There are some bees. It’s just a great day. It’s a great day to go out. You see the Mission. You see the beauty of the south-side San Antonio River, and then you can work in our farm.
Justin: I didn’t know that. I’m learning something new all the time on that, but that’s something that’s really right up my alley. Are you a reader? If so, what are you reading right now?
Eric: Man, I am just trying to catch up with my emails. [chuckles] I’m a big fan of personal improvement, so Covey, Jim Collins. To be honest, I am so knee-deep in trade publications. I’m definitely a man of faith, so the Scriptures have a part of my literary diet. My wife is the bigger reader. Traveling a bunch, I spend so much time in the car serving 16 counties here in Southwest Texas that I appreciate shows like yours. Podcast, they’ve become the lazy reader’s escape.
I digest a ton, but a big fan of TPR and NPR and just the importance of journalism in today’s environment where truth sometimes gets debated. In this COVID-19 crisis, it’s interesting because some of what was happening here because of our need and our efforts to try to meet that need, I mentioned on April 9th this experience. Now, we’ve done pop-ups for forever, 25 years that I’ve been working in this space.
It’s basically a strategy because of refrigeration that you’re trying to move a lot of product to families that the bottleneck is some of our supply chain. The ability to inform the families ahead of time that, “We’re going to be at this location. Come and get food,” then we just load them up in the trunks of their cars. Well, with the COVID-19 protocols, with physical distancing and all that, these pop-ups became the perfect way to get food to families. What typically we’d serve pre-COVID would be about 200 to 400 families. Right at the onset of COVID, it went to about 2,000 families.
Eric: Now, families would go through our website and pre-register. We started to see as we were getting deeper into the crisis. That was probably about the third or fourth week, families’ paychecks were gone and we knew that there was a bigger need. We planned on serving 6,000 families, which would be just historic for us at one time. 10,000 families actually ended up showing up. If you can imagine 10,000 families, that’s about 50,000 people. We distributed in a day about a million pounds of food.
We had 25 semi-trucks of food that we just blew through trying to make sure families were fed. If it wasn’t for hundreds and hundreds of volunteers and a great facility out there at Traders Village, we wouldn’t have been able to do it. It was the Express-News that came out just covering the story that captured the images of that day, which we just kind of knew that it was unprecedented the number, but we didn’t really realize, I think, what had happened until we all read the paper that night and saw the images like, “Wow. Yes, that’s–“
Justin: That’s the day those iconic images that went nationwide were taken?
Eric: Yes. It went viral in the sense of, I think, you can’t debate a picture, right? That picture just captured, I think, the essence of what was happening across the United States. All food banks, all cities are having these unprecedented lines, but the fact that the photographer captured an image of so many cars parked in a way waiting for food that I think made everybody realize that there’s a huge need across America and more needed to be done to feed it.
Justin: We’re going to get into more in-depth, but how is the need being filled right now? Are you able to fill the need right now? Has there reached a breaking point or so far so good?
Eric: Yes. We went from feeding the 60,000 people a week pre-COVID to now 120,000 and we just haven’t seen any relief. I think we definitely are doing more distributions because we learned it takes all day to serve families if you’re doing 10,000, so we try to keep them to about 2,000. We just had one this morning out at Toyota Field. We get done in about an hour and a half if there’s 2,000 families. Many more than that, the wait time’s great.
Where it’s going, we don’t know. I think there’s estimates I’m hearing from the chamber. It could be 20% to 24% unemployment. Until our hospitality, hard-working, blue-collar community gets back to work, I think the food bank’s going to see a lot more clients than we ever have. We’re going to do all we can to meet that need. You asked about food supply. Pretty much for eight weeks, it’s been private donations.
It’s been residents that have funded and supported our response. I’ve pushed and pushed on city, state, federal support to come our way and they heard it. They responded, but it’s less nimble and so we still are in the process of landing the state support. They funded, through the Texas Department of Emergency Management, $9.1 million to purchase food, which for us will mean several hundred semi-truck loads of product. To put it in perspective, that’s about 50% of our food for a 30-day period.
We blow through it pretty quickly when we’re feeding the number of families we’re feeding, which, I think, hid it in the beginning is, I don’t think people realize the food bank on a normal take will go through about $125 million in food in 12 months. That’s what it took to feed 60,000 people a week. Our budget today if you’re thinking on a 12-month period, we’d need about $250 million in food. That’s just tough to get out of our community, that much support. For eight weeks here in our city of San Antonio, this city stepped up in a major way and people were fed.
Justin: Oh, I had Ron Nirenberg on, I guess, two guests ago in his little birthday fundraiser. I think he tried to reach a thousand and it ended up being 64,000. [chuckles]
Eric: Yes. No. Shea Serrano raised $100,000. I don’t know if you know GP Singh, but he raised, I don’t know, like quarter of a million. Jose Menendez raised, I think, $400,000. Harvey Najim and the community, through the help of WAI and Fox KABB, raised $5.4 million. It’s been humbling. It’s been mind-blowing, but you’re like, “Man, where will the future be in fundraising?” because we’re consuming so much of it and spending so much of it that so many nonprofits are hurting. I feel it. We do a lot of special-event fundraising at the food bank.
We’ve got a golf tournament, a gala, a 5K, all that kind of stuff and all that’s gone.You don’t have events in the current environment. We had to cancel some of our fundraisers, but our cities stood up and supported us. We figured out the volunteer components. Still, hundreds of volunteers come in every day to help us. We have strong COVID protocols. If listeners are interested in coming out and volunteering, either at a distribution or at the warehouse, in our kitchens or even on the farm, just give us a call or visit us online at safoodbank.org and we’ll put you to work.
Justin: That was going to be one of my questions. Is the bigger challenge right now getting manpower or money?
Eric: All is always a challenge. I think food is actually, probably one of our biggest challenges just because of the supply chain being altered. Most people, unless you’re a food bank nerd, food is on two sides. There’s the retail side which is groceries and then the foodservice side which is restaurants. The foodservice side, because at closures, basically bottlenecked everything.
Nobody could go out and eat and so everybody was grocery shopping and we all saw the empty shelves at H-E-B and Walmart. Well, that much demand on the retail side, then you have down the supply chain, farmers, growers, dairymen, ranchers, all those guys that were selling into the foodservice side were now trying to pivot to get to the retail side because that’s where the customers were.
Some of that started to spoil. Images of farmers breaking eggs and not hatching chickens and cattle farmers here in Texas just struggling and farmers descant under fields. That should never, ever, ever happen. Food waste is appalling and the food bank is there to try to capture that margin. Because it was so great, we couldn’t capture it all and it needed a public intervention.
Finally, USDA has come up with some strategies to try to procure that food and then drive it into food banks. The four things we need, I guess asking what we need the most is food, time, money, and voice food through those food donations from industry or food drives. Time through volunteers, obviously, financial contributions give us the ability to leverage that 98¢ out of every dollar.
When people hear $1 equals seven meals, that leverage ability is because folks trust us with their financial investments, and then voice again, getting the word out. Folks listening to this, share it. Share it with your friends. Say, “Hey, look, we heard Eric talking about the food bank. There’s some great opportunities.” Getting the word out is a big part of our work, helping people understand what’s the need, how people can help, and then helping families that are struggling get to resources that they desperately need.
Justin: Anyone ever tell you you look like Paul Rudd?
Eric: Here’s the joke.
Justin: It just came to me.
Eric: I know. No. I’ve got five kids. My oldest daughter is 26 and my youngest is 16. Yes, I am Ant-Man. To all of their friends, “Mr. Cooper, did anyone ever tell you you look like Ant-Man?”
Justin: [laughs] I’m really good at celebrity sightings, so it was coming to me. What’s your favorite fiesta event?
Eric: Man, I would say avoiding the crowds. This is a shameless plug, but we have Medals for Meals, which is an attempt to capture all of the do-good medal distributors, sellers to support our event where people can donate $10 and get selections of different companies that are producing their medals. It’s just a fun fiesta event.
Justin: Is that official fiesta event?
Eric: Every year, we usually have a dozen or so folks. Now, they say it’s $10. I think it’s $25 that you get dinner and margaritas, but then there’s all these medals and you get to get, I think, two or three for free for coming to the event and then they’ll have additional medals on sale for $10.
Justin: Call if it happens. We’ll give you some. We just got all ours in.
Eric: Oh good, good. Yes, yes. You can bring your medals for a cause.
Justin: You did business before you got into the food bank side and we’re going to talk about your transition, but one of the things that really stuck with me, which I really appreciated because it’s my philosophy as well, is you talk that some of the other food banks or some of the other people in the food industry– I don’t know the food insecurity, provisioning industry. I don’t know what you call it, but you said that you’ve ruffled some feathers by not staying in your lane. I don’t know if that comes from you as a human, you as a businessman, you running a nonprofit, but what is your philosophy and what your lane is?
Eric: I was just blessed to have some amazing parents. As I was leaving the house to make my way in the world, my parents got divorced and had a little brother and sister still at home. My dad took off from Argyle to Portland, Oregon, quickly became a deadbeat dad and didn’t send child support. I didn’t see him for a few years. Long story short, I found him living homeless on the streets of Portland.
I was a small business owner, entrepreneur. My business was blessed because I took some of the responsibilities that he shirked and made sure that my mom and my little brother and sister got food. I learned this principle that I think that businesses are blessed when they fill those gaps in the community. Somebody has to answer the prayer and cry of the poor. Learning that principle and finding my dad, I realized that my dad got food because a woman had a catering business.
Whatever food wouldn’t sell, she’d drive the streets of Portland and feed the homeless. Literally going the extra mile. I came home thinking, “Man, what was I going to do to make sure people got nourished?” It really is a tribute to my dad. I had sold my business and felt like, “Let me do some work in this space of nonprofits.” Once I got into it, I realized, “Man, I was more jazzed about it in helping people,” but there was this opportunity just to bring some business strategies.
Really, in the businesses that I was a part of, I shop for venture capital and I knew what ROI and just kind of what investors were looking for. I just treated the food bank the same way. It was just like, “What’s our ROI? What can we put out?” If you’re concerned about administrative overhead, then I want to be the most efficient nonprofit so that there’s no competition, right? There’s no reason why you wouldn’t want to give to the food bank. It just started to work.
It’s just been this amazing, life-fulfilling opportunity for me to just work in this space of putting food on people’s table, but then learning the nonprofit board, accounting business side than the food industry from field to fork, every link in the food chain and USDA and agriculture and say, “How can we continue to improve? How can we continue to drive efficiencies?”
Being a little bit of a disruptor, but a disruption for efficiencies and improvement, not for chaos and confusion and destruction. I think there’s a term in nonprofits that you should stay in your lane and you shouldn’t suffer from mission creep. I guess I’m creepy, man. I never thought of it as staying in your lane, but staying maybe on the highway. There’s times when you need to shift lanes and maybe you get in the left lane because it’s a little faster.
Justin: I think that’s a good segue to the mission creep, as I understand it, has to do with the fact that you’ll do more than provide food. You’ll help people get benefits. You help job training. You have the farm. You have an arm that helps people who qualify, get vet service for their animals and food for their animals. Give us the world of what all the food bank is providing because I never knew that until I started doing more research.
Eric: Yes, it’s a crazy place. I think we try to build around this framework that people should work according to their ability and receive according to their need. That’s a philosophy and that with good nutrition and physical activity, you can heal the world, right? There’s four big barriers to nutrition, income, geography, knowledge, can you prepare the food, and then just all the marketing in the food industry and just what’s complicated.
End of the day when families are hungry, it’s about food for today. Our framework of today, tomorrow, and a lifetime is how we move families from crisis to self-sufficiency. Families might walk in or go through our website or call us. We’re going to address their needs with physical food, either through groceries, through one of our 550 distribution partners, or meals. While we’re doing that, we’re helping those families then connect with food for tomorrow.
That’s really helping them understand the public benefits like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, SNAP, or Women, Infants, and Children, WIC, or the Children’s Health Insurance Program or Medicaid or Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. There’s a lot of federal programs. Even for seniors, there’s a program long-term care which, for us, it might be a food benefit, but then it also might be a healthcare benefit that can then strengthen the home.
So many families, it’s about shifting expenses. It’s offsetting costs. If we can provide utility assistance, then maybe there’s more money for food. I never felt like we actually had to physically put food on the table directly. If we were providing support to a family, that could indirectly put food on the table. Our third tier of strategy is really food for a lifetime and that’s about that conversation about work.
We meet so many hard-working families in San Antonio that they’re the working poor as we talked and helping them. How can they get better skills? How can they sharpen their saw? How can they talk to their employer about an increase? There’s a portion that struggle with employment. Maybe they lost their job and they’re looking. There’s those that are unskilled. We have training programs.
We have three culinary schools that we run in connection to our production kitchens. Individuals can go through that training and we’ll get them jobs. In the hospitality foodservice community, we also have a warehouse training program. If you want to learn how to operate a forklift or a pallet jack or learn sanitation or inventory and we can get you jobs at local distributors. The last part of our food for a lifetime is nutrition education.
We teach cooking skills and how to get the best nutrition for the dollar and really try to move people forward. There’s that old saying, “If you give a man a fish, you fed him for a day. If you teach them how to fish, you fed them for a lifetime.” I like just to frame it that if she doesn’t know that you’re going to pack a tuna fish sandwich, she won’t meet you at the dock, right? She wants to, she wants to. Her babies are hungry. If we don’t eat today, we can’t learn to fish tomorrow, right?
It’s really this tandem approach that you’re like, “Look, let us give a fish while we’re teaching the fish.” If you do that, you can stabilize a household and you can get them moving in the direction that they want and they need. Too many times, I think we package it. It’s a “or.” It’s either you teach them to fish or you give them a fish. Surely, teaching is the better thing. I think it’s not an “or” equation. It’s an “and.” You have to do both. That’s what the food bank is determined to do.
Justin: You have such a passion for this. I wish people could watch you talk about this. You really do. I might be being presumptuous, but I feel like does this come from somewhere more than just your father’s story? You’ve got a real passion for helping and feeding people and you’ve got a very compelling story, but is this faith-driven? Is this how you were raised? Is it purely the situation with your father?
Eric: I think all of us are pretty complicated recipes and lots of different ingredients that go into it. I’m not going to solve hunger with a canned good. It’s really about a community of compassion. If I can help with the conscience of our community– I get the privilege of lecturing at UTSA or Trinity or Incarnate Word. Oftentimes, I’m saying, “Look, you’re the future.” If I could have more MBAs of conscience, which led to more CEOs of conscience where people thought about sustainability in the sense of employment and opportunities for everyone and that people have what they need to meet their basic needs.
Bottom line, I think my work is about bringing understanding. I have an understanding based on the people I meet that it wasn’t a decision they made or this conversation of the worthy or unworthy poor or should I help this guy or not? To me, I love our city. I love our people and I think we need less judgment and more understanding. When you walk the streets I walk, when you meet the people I meet, it helps me understand them. It just compels me to act.
I think that people that don’t act most of the time, they just don’t understand. It’s a privilege to help them come to the realization that I have. I think our city is going to be much better off when all of us know our neighbors and we’re doing what we can to help them. There’s a crazy thought. Do they need us or do we need them? In both sides, is it the person that needs help or the person that gives help that’s transformed? I think all of us are better when we’re selfless, when we’re sharing and we’re caring.
There’s some statistics around volunteers living longer than people that don’t volunteer. Their quality of life is enhanced. If you’re feeling low or discouraged or overwhelmed or depressed, especially in this COVID-19 environment, it’s easy. The mental health side of this crisis can get the best of us, but the quickest and easiest way for you to cure what ails you is to start serving. It will transform you. It will cure you in ways that you never thought possible.
Justin: You’re going to get me off of what I’m supposed to be doing here, which is asking you questions. I can just listen to you. You’ve got a very soothing like NPR, a way about you, but–
Eric: Is it Paul Rudd coming out?
Justin: No. You have found the perfect job for who you are to the extent I’ve gotten to know you in this short amount of time. Your passion for what you do is very contagious. I think that is probably what the food bank has done so well under your leadership. Have you seen any differences in community between your work in Utah, your work in Dallas, your work in San Antonio? I don’t think anybody that’s asking for help deserves to be in that position. From a community, I think communities have their own language. They have their own feel and they have their own identity. What’s been different about San Antonio?
Eric: I think San Antonio, from a nonprofit collaborative sense, Dallas, the city worked in cliques and circles. If you’re in the right place, then you had opportunities. Utah was a bit of the same. There was a lot of turfism and San Antonio nonprofits. They’ve got it going on. I think it’s partially because the need is so great that no one nonprofit has all of the answers and so we all work together.
I think what I would say, our forefathers, if you will, the Mayses, the Greeheys, all of those Red McCombs, all these individuals that really loved our city and put us in a trajectory of leadership and mindfulness of giving back. It’s cool when you start to see the second, third, fourth generations now carrying that torch. I do think that San Antonio is segregated. We have the haves and we have the have-nots. I think it’s tough when you see those statistics, those realities. When San Antonio, this last year, was ranked number one in the percentage of people living in poverty, we beat out Detroit. You think of like, “Man, Detroit.” That’s not what I think anyone would assume that you’re like, “Really? I don’t believe that. That can’t be right.”
Justin: Do you think it’s an education issue? Do you think it’s access to jobs that pay a living wage? Ron was on the show and he was talking about that
this is exacerbated, highlighted issues that were present in our community. It gives us an opportunity as we come out to address them because maybe you have changing mindsets of people who said, I’ll never be in those shoes who are now in the food bank lines. What do you think the crux for our community to pull up the have nots, as you said?
Eric: I just definitely, people that live in poverty have lots of issues. It’s complex. They might have lost their job or they’re underemployed. They might be, have their utilities shut off or they’ve got a lot of debt or health crisis, but someone that’s hungry, they just have one issue. Until you solve that one issue, again, you address hunger, then you can start to address the complexity of poverty.
It’s education, it’s housing, it’s childcare and it’s opportunity, opportunity for a sustainable living wage. That’s what families want. You mentioned nickeled and dimed. I’m always blown away at how hard families work and yet struggle to make it. I pulled up one day at the L stoplight and I looked over and this amazing Hispanic gentleman, looked like a grandfather, sitting in the back of a work truck. I could see his gray hair and just as his hands they were just so mighty and from working outside. I just sat watching him and he was just a good looking guy and I thought he’s got grandkids probably. He’s got a wife. He’s working, doing landscaping outside in the Texas heat.
He wants what everybody wants, he wants opportunity and has those same needs. Probably woke up before us and will go to bed after us. Yet probably makes a wage that’s far less than many of us have, so we have an opportunity to fix that. I hope that coming out of the COVID-19 crisis, our city says enough’s enough. Just before COVID, we were talking about sick leave and a portion of the city saying bad idea to extend sick leave to workers.
Justin: Not only that, suing the city. It was more than just a whine, and a moan, and a groan. It’s a lawsuit.
Eric: Think about that in the COVID-19 environment where not going to work means not getting a paycheck, which means not paying your bills, which means when you have symptoms that could be COVID related, do you not go to work? When you think about the outbreaks in a pandemic, you want to have a safety net that allows your employees to protect their income so that they don’t go under, so they don’t become homeless, that they don’t have their world start to unravel because a child is sick or they have a mental health day.
I think for so many of the people that I talked to that were against that, they like me have never missed a paycheck from not showing up to work because I was sick. Unless you can relate to that, unless you understand like that hourly worker not only gets nickeled and dimed when they punch in when they get there, but they get nickeled and dimed when they punch out. If they don’t punch in at all, that loss of income means some other day during the week, they’re going to have to try to make that up if they want to make their car payment, if they want to make their utility payment.
I guess it’s just equity, opportunity. What does it take to make it in our city? I believe that everyone should have those basic needs met. It shouldn’t be about a lifestyle, but it should definitely be about life and life should be able to be sustained. Right now in our city, there’s a lot of people that are reaching out for the lifeline that the food bank is providing. Our city’s stepping up. I hope after COVID, many employers really think about that sustainability and offer that they have for their employees.
Justin: I was reading an interview and you’ve talked about since 2001 till present some of the changes you’ve seen. You said it used to be more of the people that didn’t have a job or the people applying and then it became people that were employed but just not making enough money to make ends meet. You seem very in tune in the attitudes of people as it relates to the people that are in need. Have you seen attitudes towards the needy change? I feel as though over the last 10 years you’ve seen this very much, us versus them, become more us versus them. Have you seen that? Do you feel that that’s a growing rift?
Eric: Yes, you hit it. It’s just starting at the Utah food bank and then move into Dallas and coming here. Our strategy was always like, man, what if we just got people working? If we got them a job, then they would be out of our line. That was really the answer to poverty was just the Reagan era, the solution to welfare is a J-O-B. There’s some minor truth to that, but I would say the answer to poverty is W-A-G-E, that is really what it’s about. When you debate a minimum wage, the minimum wage should have a maximum age. It’s great if you’re living at home and it’s just a high school job. Once you’re a parent or you’re trying to make it in the economy, the minimum wage is inadequate.
A lot of employers would say, well, Hey I pay 12 bucks an hour but when you’re paying 12 bucks an hour and you don’t guarantee 40 hours, or you don’t offer healthcare, can your employees make it and is that what you’d want for your child? I know you’re expecting the future for our kids. The opportunities we want them to have. If more of us thought of it like, Hey, what would I want my kid? What would I want my sister? What would I want my little brother? That we’re family, we’re a big family and everyone’s needs need to be met. We just have to balance out from those that maybe have and see if we can get those that don’t have brought up. I think that’s our opportunity for our city.
Justin: You discussed recently some of the challenges that the food bank is having as it relates to the federal government, some available grant money that’s gone out. There was a little bit of a debate, a little bit of controversy swirling around was that the USDA gave a grant. It was fairly significant, 39.1 million, if I recall, to a event planning group, which maybe they’re the best in the world, but you discussed it a little bit and if I’m reading through the tea leaves, my guess is there seems to be some confusion or some lack of transparency on how that process was being managed.
What are you running into? What are you dealing with from the Fed side, from the stateside? What are some of the challenges you’re facing?
Eric: I tell you, we’re so privileged to partner with the United States Department of Agriculture and we run a lot of their programs and benefit from when they’re rescuing a market and buying up commodities, then those commodities oftentimes stock our shelves. As the crisis started to backlog those industries for dairy and produce and protein and foodservice started to take the hit, many of our food distributors are literally operating at about 15% of what they used to be.
So, USDA’s Coronavirus Farm Assistance Program that was rebranded as the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program and it’s now called Farms to Families Food Program was stood up so quickly. I don’t want an armchair quarterback anybody, but in theory, this program was to buy up those surpluses, bring back some of the employees to those food distributors, divert the food to food banks. As the economy was strengthened, then that would shift from the food banks back to foodservice restaurants. All you’re trying to do is connect the dots.
USDA released an RFP. We worked with hundreds of food distributors that know the industry, handle produce, handle dairy, handle protein, who are really hurting. When they put in their bids, that was given a week’s period and then a week later they were awarded, we learned that most of the companies we worked with didn’t get contracts. There’s companies across the United States that we would have never guessed landed these government contracts. Now, I’m fair competition guy. If they want it, that’s great. The reality is they’re funded to provide food that we’ll get. We need them to be successful, and so we’re working with any company that got an award through this process to try to say, “Look, let me explain how it works, and where these trucks are and where the food is and how we can work together to make sure that the contracts are successful.” It’s definitely added another layer of stress and a lot of controversy because there’s a lot of great food service companies that could have really used those funds.
I think everything in this crisis has been a little additional crisis when you think of the PPP program and the Lakers giving back money, and all of that– What it’d look like on the front end? What does it look like today? Hopefully, some of this trickles down to actually get to the intended targets. Here at the food bank, I’m going to work as hard as I can to ensure that success is had when it comes to getting food for the families we feed.
Justin: I want to talk to you about what I thought was the most impressive statistic. I saw a 2% overhead. I’m going to just mess with you, but either y’all have a tonne of funding or super low overhead. How are you able to run? Overhead includes salaries, right?
Eric: Yes. All nonprofits are graded the same way, and there’s a lot of great watchdog organizations like Charity Navigator and others that put that upfront. Now, I’ve been a believer in that, before even Charity Navigator existed. We’d put our audited financials on our website.
Justin: It’s called something, a 1040?
Eric: Yes, your 990. The 990 is basically a nonprofit tax return, that’s our equivalent of the 1040. It’s just important to be transparent. Hey, if you’re not doing anything wrong, you don’t have anything to hide. I know we go about our work with a high level of integrity. Most nonprofits are probably, 7%, 8%, 9%, 10%. There’s definitely charities out there that are 30%, 40%, 50%. I think just like anyone that’s making an investment in the stock market, do your homework, know who you’re supporting. If you don’t, and you just want to be Santa Claus, you don’t care, that’s fine, but if you’re an astute investor, you want to drive impact and change, do your homework.
We are so blessed. We literally have 1,000 volunteers a week that come through our doors. I’ve got 40 guys that are incarcerated, currently serving time, that are released from prison every day. They come to the food bank, they put in a full eight-hour day and then they go back to prison at night. It’s part of their transformation, and restitution, and learning.
All these guys are going to be released within 24 months, they’re all going to be needing jobs, they’re going to be needing skills, they need to be given a second chance. Obviously, if they’re not, if nobody wants to rent to them, no one wants to employ them, then they’re going to get back into trouble, and they’re going to be costing taxpayers a ton of money as we incarcerate them. All of these felons are working for me, they’re all non-violent. The number one reason why they’re incarcerated is either possession, drugs, or alcohol.
Those two addictions can sometimes give someone a life sentence of poverty, and I just believe in redemption. I believe that people can change, but I also believe in efficiencies, so if I can get these 40 guys to work for me, drive my efficiencies down while they’re feeling good about giving back to the community, it’s just a win, win, win, and combined with that, a great staff that really work hard, and a board that holds us accountable. Every year, my board’s after me to keep within the margins they set, and we’ve been able to do it for many, many years.
Justin: Where are y’all at in terms of your expansion? In terms of property, warehousing, and staffing, are you all about where you all need to be? Or are you all busting at the seams? What’s the next step?
Eric: It’s a great question. We’re so blessed at our headquarters, 151 Old Highway 90, to have 40 acres, that’s our campus. 25 acres, like I said is under agriculture. The warehouse is 210,000 square feet, and we’ve got a large scale commercial kitchen inside the facility, with teaching gardens, classrooms, and all that stuff, but just before COVID, our need to ramp up our meal production out of the warehouse kitchen was needed. Now, I’ll pause for a minute.
We do have a branch facility in New Braunfels, great little mini food bank, does everything that we do in San Antonio up there, including a culinary school and kitchen. It actually does the Meals on Wheels for Komal County, runs DaisyCares, serves a lot of families. Then we have a venison processing facility in Garden Ridge that allows us to capture wild game and process that as a great lean protein for families in need. Again, bending the cost curve, trying to keep within efficiencies. Then our main facility, and then we also have then a kitchen at the campus Haven for Hope. We feed the homeless there, three meals a day, and run a culinary school there.
Then our last facility is in Pearsall, down in Frio County where we have our produce packing shed, which is really dedicated to working the agricultural community and getting some of those fresh fruits and vegetables from farmers to families in need. All of those are our properties, but there was a growing trend in the food industry, and it’s best described as a grocerant. It’s the fusion of the grocery store and a restaurant. There’s new Krogers that are being built that have seven restaurants within the Kroger store.
You’ve seen in our local H-E-B’s, the growing footprint of more refrigerated and less dry, the concept of Meals Simple. H-E-B knows that it’s about convenience. All of us in this economy were operating at such a fast pace that nutrition and convenience can sometimes run at odds. When the dollar menu is too convenient, then it’s going to take its toll. Higher rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, all those are health issues, so for those that are income able to get H-E-B’s Meal Simple, a great nutritious meal that’s quick, it’s fast, it’s tasty, is what was compelling us to say, “What could we be doing at the food bank to provide a Meal Simple to the working poor?”
So, we broke ground on a 60,000 square foot culinary center back in January that will give us the ability to do about 50,000 meals a day. It will also allow some additional protein from the venison processing. It will have a large culinary school and a nutrition education component, but it’s on the 40-acre campus. It’s under construction right now. Now, how we pay for it? That’s a lot of stress. Obviously, all of the support we’ve been getting has been COVID-related, so capital campaign fundraising is probably not going to be very fun in the next month or a year, but we’re committed to it. We’re building it and it’ll be a huge weapon in the fight against hunger. I wish we had it opened now.
Justin: How much needs to be raised for that?
Eric: It’s a $17 million project, and we’ve probably got about four, so it’s a lot of stress, but I’m trying to just take it in stride. There’s some great foundations that are committed to it. We’ve got to deal with the crisis at hand and keep that moving, but you think about San Antonio as a hub city when it comes to disasters. Our worst nightmare would be a summer of hurricanes. if we have another Harvey, that will drive people from the Gulf Coast into our city.
We’re the strategy, in partnership with the Red Cross in the city of San Antonio, to stand up mega shelters, which will need to help shelter people in place, but under COVID-19 protocols, keeping people distanced in a mass shelter, should there be a natural disaster like a hurricane, tornado, flooding, any of that. I just pray that Mother Nature gives us a break, but that kitchen would give us the ability to meet really any of the food production needs for any disaster that might come our way, including COVID. We’re doing a lot of delivered meals, we’re doing a lot of meals at congregate sites in addition to home-delivered groceries. Having an asset like that culinary center in the future will be a big part of San Antonio’s food security.
Justin: Really, I didn’t know so much about what you all do. Learning about you all are such an integral part of our community, not from just the food insecurity standpoint, but all those other things you all offer, which is really fantastic. I think it’s a testament to why you all have been such a successful nonprofit because you all are such a success in our community. Thank you for coming here.
I want to end this. I try to keep these around an hour, but in one of your interviews, somebody was asking how can they help in these times. You go through the volunteer or the money and then at the end, you just said, “Otherwise, just be kinder and smile more.” Why is that an important philosophy for you? How do you think that affects people at large?
Eric: I just think that’s the answer. If you’re just kind, if you’re nice, there’s miracles. It’s connecting with people. Kinder, gentler, smiling. The shortest distance between two people is a smile.
Justin: Eric, I didn’t really know what to expect. I’ve heard so much about you. You’re such a transformational character, really in the nonprofit space but also just in the– I think the identity of who we are as a city of being good to each other and we stick together. San Antonio, differently than a lot of cities, stick together. I think people like you were the reason why. Thank you for being here. Once we get outside of that, you’re back on the path of building monster facilities and moving the food bank forward, I hope you’ll come back on and we can talk more about what’s going on with you all.
That’s going to do it for this episode. My guest wishlist continues and you hit one of them. Shea Serrano, we’re trying to get on the show. He’s been a big supporter of the food bank. Coach Pop, I don’t think he’ll ever come on the show, but we’re trying. Patty Mills is doing great things for the city. I think it’s great to see Patty Mills really immersing himself in our city as our city and not just to a guy who plays basketball here. That’s going to do it for this episode, and we’ll see you next time.
Speaker: Thanks for joining us on this episode of the Alamo Hour. You are all what make this city so great. We hope you join us next week. In the meantime, subscribe to our podcast. Check us out on Facebook at facebook.com/alamohour or our website, alamohour.com. Until next time, VIVA San Antonio.
[01:02:59] [END OF AUDIO]