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KERA's One Crisis Away project focuses on North Texans living on the financial edge.

From 11 Million Meals To 70 Million: Jan Pruitt Changed The North Texas Food Bank Forever

North Texas Food Bank

Editor's note: Jan Pruitt, president and CEO of the North Texas Food Bank, died Jan. 2 after a battle with cancer. Last month, Pruitt stepped down from her post at the food bank after two decades of service. This story was published on Dec. 27. It details her life and work. 

One of the biggest challenges of living on the financial edge is hunger. As head of the North Texas Food Bank for the last 20 years, Jan Pruitt has been leading that fight.

Now, she’s fighting a personal battle—against cancer. Earlier in December, she stepped down as the food bank’s president and CEO. She’ll no longer receive treatment at MD Anderson in Houston.

A Special Leader

Talking to Jan Pruitt in her post as North Texas Food Bank leader was like talking to an expert or academic who just happened to have the warmth of an old friend and the passion of an advocate. Here’s what she had to say after the Hunger In America report was released in 2014.

“The stereotypes that so many people have about who’s hungry in America or who’s hungry in North Texas, they’re just wrong," she said.

That report's counterintuitive findings revealed that three out of every five food bank clients had a job. And the vast majority had permanent housing. Those who worked with Pruitt say she cared -- and she got it. That was true when one of the food bank’s founders, Liz Minyard, helped hire her in 1997.

“I’ve always said, whether it’s in the corporate life or in the nonprofit world, when you get the right person in the right job, it’s just almost magical," Minyard says.

Starting Small

Pruitt was living in Lancaster, a stay-at-home mom with four kids when her priest called, asking her for help. She started small-- at a service agency in the suburb south of Dallas.

Liz Minyard says working with people in need in her own community helped shape her into the dynamic leader she became.

“You know it’s hard to find someone with that passion. And that understanding, comprehension. She’s been there in the community, she’s been in the trenches," Minyard says. "She just has done such an incredible job that she will be very hard to replace.”

Big Changes

The North Texas Food Bank serves 13 counties. The first year Pruitt was in charge, the food bank gave out 11 million meals. The latest count is 70 million.

Lou Grabowsky is a former food bank board member. He says Pruitt wasn’t just about quantity.

“What Jan has led over really the past 15 years, is this transformation from just ‘food’ to nutritional food," he says.

Her philosophy transformed many pantries into mini-markets— poultry, produce and fresh herbs took center stage, alongside the traditional cereal and dried beans.

She also made sure low-income kids were taken care of after school—by giving them backpacks full of food to take home every weekend.

“If you can’t really relate to that you can’t relate to anything around hunger," Grabowsky says. "And Jan led that.”

She talked about that program in a Dallas Business Journal video back in 2013.

“I know that on my worst day, I know that that Friday, 11,000 backpacks are going to go to kids and they’re going to eat over the weekend because of our efforts," she said.

Trying To Forge Ahead

Fighting hunger is like trying to solve an intractable puzzle. What set Pruitt apart, her admirers say, is the fearless way she took it on.

“Without Jan we wouldn’t be where we are," Grabowsky says. 

The task of replacing her is almost inconceivable. The folks involved—including Chief Operating Officer and interim CEO Simon Powell—are determined to charge ahead.

After all, it’s what Jan Pruitt would do.

Courtney Collins has been working as a broadcast journalist since graduating from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2004. Before coming to KERA in 2011, Courtney worked as a reporter for NPR member station WAMU in Washington D.C. While there she covered daily news and reported for the station’s weekly news magazine, Metro Connection.