A truck is positioned to be loaded at the East Texas Food Bank in Tyler during a previous effort. (Sarah A. Miller/Tyler Morning Telegraph)

A new program to help people get fresh produce if they struggle with getting healthy food is kicking off in the northwestern part of Tyler this month.

It’s part of an initiative by a local volunteer group who looked at data showing that people in the northwestern part of the city struggle with obtaining food, and there aren’t markets nearby to help them.

Councilwoman Shirley McKellar understands the problem all too well. She grew up in the area, and lives near the Caldwell Zoo, but there are no supermarkets in her neighborhood, and she routinely helps neighbors get food.

McKellar said the Walmart on Texas Highway 64 is technically in her City Council district, but it’s not in her neighborhood. The Super 1 on East Gentry Parkway is about a three-mile drive from the Caldwell Zoo.

“There are no markets in North Tyler, ma’am,” McKellar said. “People have to go out and go onto 271 or they have to go to west Tyler to 64 and the Loop. There’s an Aldi’s over there. I grew up with supermarkets, I’m talking about Brookshire’s right there in Tyler.”

Years ago, there was a Brookshire’s grocery store on North Broadway Avenue, where a clinic for the Northeast Texas Public Health District is now located, McKellar said. Under the bridge nearby on Valentine Street has become a gathering place for homeless Tylerites.

On Aug. 13, the East Texas Food Bank will work with the Smith County Food Security Council to bring an 18-wheeler full of fresh produce to New Days Community Church at 901 N. Broadway Avenue from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

“We will have food for whoever needs it,” said Dr. Valerie Smith, a pediatrician with the St. Paul Children’s Foundation and he leader of the Smith County Food Security Council. “So if we get 1,000 families, then fabulous.”

The council is a volunteer coalition that includes representatives from nonprofits, health care, education, public health, religious organizations, businesses, agricultural organizations, and private citizens. Smith said the work relates directly to practicing medicine.

“Food insecurity is associated with a whole host of health and mental health outcomes for kids especially, everything from anemia and low bone density to school delays, to problems with anxiety and depression, to problems with diabetes and high cholesterol,” Smith said.

“What I know is I can see a family in the clinic and tell them how they need to change their diet in order to be healthier but if they don’t have access to that food, everything I tell them doesn’t make a difference,” Smith said.

Kids are just a portion of those who will be served, says Bill McRoberts, one of the volunteers with the Smith County Food Security Council. McRoberts, of Hideaway, says people in any age group are welcome to the services being offered.

“Twenty-four percent of children in Smith County don’t know where their next meal is coming from. Hear me, one in four children in Smith County don’t know where their next meal is coming from. It’s unacceptable. To me it’s just wrong.”

He added: “It’s difficult for me to imagine a mother fully fed when her children don’t have anything to eat. What I’m telling you is she’s not eating either.”

Kinsey Jeffers, a nutrition educator for the East Texas Food Bank, said the event also will have representatives from the Women, Infant, and Children program, the Texas Workforce Commission, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and Medicaid, among others.

Jeffers said the East Texas Food Bank does these types of food drops through the 26 counties it serves, but this will be the first time that additional services will be offered in conjunction with the food.

“The produce is there because it’s kind of a food desert, so it’s in an area where they don’t necessarily have a lot of access to fresh produce,” Jeffers said. “So that’s kind of the first goal, but then also, why not have a one-stop shop?”

Smith said the August event is the first in what she hopes will become quarterly food drops at the New Day Community Church. She said the group found that church because the northwestern part of Tyler has the highest need in the city.

“(We noticed) a lack of food pantries in that area and really a great need in that area but not a lot of community organizations that are housed in that area, so instead of housing them in those organizations, we wanted to bring them into the community there,” Smith said.

She said the northeastern part of Tyler also has significant problems with food insecurity, but there are more food pantries nearby to serve those people. Additionally, the demographic data from the nearby elementary schools show a need.

“Of all the places in Tyler, this particular part of Tyler is in more need of health care, of food support, and those kinds of things, so we welcome them,” said Reginald Garrett, the pastor for New Days.

“Right now we just have this one-deal plan, but we look forward to any, if there are subsequent programs, we would look forward to doing that,” Garrett said.

TWITTER and INSTAGRAM: @_erinmansfield

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