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New center could help tackle food insecurity among children in Tarrant County area

Tarrant Area Food Bank is in the early development stage of its Ready to Learn Center at 205 N. Vacek St. The center would provide a community market, playground and educational programs to families in the food bank’s 13-county service area.
Courtesy photo
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Tarrant Area Food Bank
Tarrant Area Food Bank is in the early development stage of its Ready to Learn Center at 205 N. Vacek St. The center would provide a community market, playground and educational programs to families in the food bank’s 13-county service area.

Viviana Mendez walks through the vacant parking lot in front of Tarrant Area Food Bank’s new agriculture hub at 205 N. Vacek St.

While others may see it as an empty space, Mendez, who serves as the Ready to Learn manager at the food bank, sees it as an opportunity to make a dream come true.

For a few years, Mendez and her colleagues discussed revitalizing the property into something new for families across the bank’s 13-county service areas, which includes Tarrant, Denton and Palo Pinto counties.

Multiple ideas have come and gone, but the Tarrant Area Food Bank has settled on one that could help tackle food insecurity among children in North Texas: the Ready to Learn Center.

While the project is in early development stages, Mendez knows the food bank is headed in the right direction.

“We have always prepared for the future,” she said. “Essentially, we’re creating a community hub and making sure we are thinking about what our clients and neighbors need. That really trajected the implementation of this dream.”

Food insecurity among children

Food insecurity is a lack of consistent access to enough food and is associated with increased risk for chronic health conditions such as diabetes, obesity, heart disease and mental health disorders.

Texas has one of the highest rates of child food insecurity, with almost 1.6 million children affected. Children who face food insecurity in infancy or early childhood also risk long-lasting cognitive consequences, according to Every Texan, a public policy nonprofit.

In Tarrant County, 11 ZIP codes have the greatest food insecurity based on the food insecurity index. Created by Conduent Healthy Communities Institute, the index is a measure of economic and household hardship correlated with poor food access that is standardized and averaged to create a composite value for each ZIP code.

Vision for new center

The Ready to Learn Center, made up of a community market, playground and space for educational programs, will take up roughly 12,000 square feet inside Tarrant Area Food Bank’s 80,000-square-foot agricultural hub.

The food bank receives and distributes up to 45 million pounds of fruits and vegetables a year to those in need. The logistics for getting leafy greens and vegetables to people who need them is tricky. The food bank has partnerships with cooperatives in Nogales, Arizona, and Brownsville. But it’s a race against time, because of the short shelf life of the produce, Stephen Raeside, the food bank’s chief development and external affairs officer, previously told the Report.

“The tomatoes can come to us almost on the verge of becoming marinara or salsa … so we have to work very, very quickly,” Raeside said.

The food bank plans to construct a main entrance for the Ready to Learn Center, a children’s garden and a playground on the existing parking lot in front of the hub. Inside the center, people will be able to shop for free food in a community market and enroll their children in educational nutrition programs.

“The idea is that this space becomes a comfortable and easy place to bring your children along, because we want kids to be engaged in the process of shopping through the market and seeing the product, so they become knowledgeable of it themselves,” said Mendez.

The Ready to Learn Center will feature a children’s playground and a newly constructed entrance on an existing parking area out outside the agriculture hub at 205 N. Vacek St.
Courtesy photo
/
Tarrant Area Food Bank
The Ready to Learn Center will feature a children’s playground and a newly constructed entrance on an existing parking area out outside the agriculture hub at 205 N. Vacek St.
People will be able to shop for healthy food in a community market inside the center.
Courtesy photo
/
Tarrant Area Food Bank
People will be able to shop for healthy food in a community market inside the center.
A rendering of the Ready to Learn Center’s community garden shows where children will learn to grow and harvest their own fruits and vegetables.
Courtesy photo
/
Tarrant Area Food Bank
A rendering of the Ready to Learn Center’s community garden shows where children will learn to grow and harvest their own fruits and vegetables.

The food bank also hopes to partner with a child care organization to house a day care inside the building, but details are pending. As Fort Worth continues to grow, it’s important to offer child care to families who relocate to the area, said Julie Butner, president and CEO of Tarrant Area Food Bank.

“This area’s really changing from warehouse industry to residential,” Butner said. “I’m trying to anticipate families that are moving here, and ask, ‘Where would they go for services?’ They can come get it here.”

Tarrant Area Food Bank is finalizing construction costs for the Ready to Learn Center. The food bank hopes to break ground on the center in 2025 and open in late 2026.

David Moreno is the health reporter for the Fort Worth Report. His position is supported by a grant from Texas Health Resources. Contact him at david.moreno@fortworthreport.org or @davidmreports on X.

At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here

This article first appeared on Fort Worth Report and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.