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East Texas Food Bank board members break ground Wednesday on a resource and fresh produce processing center in Tyler.

TYLER — The East Texas Food Bank is set to begin construction on a new resource center and fresh produce processing center in Tyler.

The project — which is part of the food bank’s overall strategic plan to expand programs, distribute more food and serve clients — is a $7 million investment.

More infrastructure, such as new roads for delivery trucks, will have to be addressed once construction begins. Construction is set to be completed sometime next year.

“We are excited to move forward with our plans to build a new food pantry at our distribution center in Tyler,” food bank CEO Dennis Cullinane said Wednesday during a groundbreaking ceremony. “We currently estimate that this project will ... provide 756,000 meals annually.”

The East Texas Food Bank serves 26 counties in the region including Gregg.

The 2,500-square-foot resource center, which will be adjacent to the food bank offices, is near neighborhoods where 34% of the population lives below the poverty line, according to census data.

Cullinane said this is the first time the organization will operate a food pantry at its facility to help close the community’s hunger gap.

The resource center also will include a healthy food pantry option to provide nutritious items through a new client-choice distribution model.

A benefits assistance program also will be provided at the new center to help clients apply for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and other social service benefits.

A 9,000-square-foot fresh produce processing facility is set to be constructed along with the resource center.

The fresh produce processing center will allow the food bank to employ different distribution strategies including collecting, storing, repackaging and distributing fresh fruits and vegetables in the counties the organization operates.

“Fresh fruits and vegetables are an important part of a healthy diet, and yet many of our clients are unable to buy them because of the expense,” Cullinane said. “The goal is to sustain our fresh product distribution at 14 million pounds or 50 percent of ETFB’s total distribution by 2025.”

Cullinane said one of the reasons why the food bank decided to greenlight this project is because of the food crisis worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic along with recent inflation woes.

“We had a 10-year strategic plan to try and narrow the meal gap, making sure that everybody had access to the resources that they needed,” he said. “When the state reopened after the pandemic, things got a little bit better, but the recent 9.1 percent inflation ... has really sent a lot of people to the end of the line.”

The new facilities were funded by several grants, including a $9 million grant by Mackenzie Scott, the ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

Donna Spam, chief advancement officer for East Texas Food Bank, said Scott’s vision when donating money to these types of organizations was to set an example for others to contribute to the cause.

“There are approximately 200 food banks operating nationwide, and we were one of the 42 that received a grant back,” Spam said.

Other donations came from federal coronavirus relief funding.

“If our generous donors didn’t provide us with these grants, we would not be able to do the work we do,” Cullinane said.

The East Texas Food Bank is distributing 27 million meals every year with the goal being 32 million, according to Cullinane.

He said the opening of the new facilities will help the organization in reaching the goal by 2025.

For information, visit the ETFB website and click on the “find food” button and look for the county of residence.

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