As food insecurity grows, one of Denton’s largest pantries operates on borrowed time
Just after 1 p.m. on a Wednesday in late September, idling cars are lined up neatly between traffic cones on Fort Worth Drive, its inhabitants waiting for their turn to enter the small white and green building in the corner of a gravel lot. By the road, an employee in a yellow safety vest is directing cars as they enter the lot while a man in a golf cart patrols the line, occasionally flashing drivers a handheld whiteboard that reads “Pull up.”
“People start coming in early and they have to send them away,” said Staci Schmidt, facilities division director at Denton Freedom House, which operates Denton Freedom Food Pantry.
Though the food pantry is less than 2,000 square feet, it’s Denton’s second largest in terms of volume, serving nearly 900 clients every month. Formerly The Shepherd’s Hand, Denton Freedom House Ministries “rescued” the pantry, as Schmidt puts it, in July 2019, when its former owner fell ill. Though the operation was intended as a temporary one, ministry staff quickly realized that the need the pantry had been helping meet during its 14 years ran deep.
“Our CEO went to the board and said, ‘Give us six months and let’s at least help them transition,’ and then COVID hit, and we went from serving about 45 families a day to 150,” Schmidt said.
Nearly 4 million Texans struggle with food insecurity, according to the nonprofit Feeding Texas. Though grocery prices are down slightly from their peak last July of a nearly 16% annual increase, prolonged price growth has led many Americans to reduce spending on groceries. Combined with cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program earlier this year, more people are reporting skipping meals or not having enough food for children in their households.
At Freedom Pantry, the number of new clients has been increasing, and established clients have been coming more often thanks to higher costs. But that need and the volume Freedom sees is, ironically, why the pantry cannot remain where it is. Despite several of the adjacent properties sitting empty, Schmidt says the daily line of about 10 cars has created tensions with Freedom’s landlord and the neighboring tenants that remain.
The pantry is open weekdays from 1 to 4 p.m., with a line typically only forming just after 1 p.m. as clients wait to park in one of the pantry’s five parking spots and go inside to retrieve their items. The staff has tried several fixes to make sure their operations aren’t infringing on their neighbors, but they’ve reached an unavoidable conclusion: The pantry has outgrown its current space.
With only two freezers and limited storage, staff members have to pick up groceries from Freedom’s 14 local partners more often, along with receiving twice-weekly deliveries from the Tarrant Area Food Bank.
But finding a new space has been next to impossible so far, according to Schmidt.
Located in a food desert — an area where people have limited access to a variety of healthy and affordable food, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture — many of the pantry’s regulars are among Denton’s most vulnerable: retirees, single-parent families, the unhoused and those struggling with addiction. Rather than the drive-thru model of other centers, Freedom was designed as a self-choice pantry where clients could come in and select their items, allowing for more dignity and less food waste.
The staff and volunteers would also talk and pray with clients, but since feeling the pressure from property management to get people in and out as quickly as possible, Schmidt says they’ve had to largely eliminate those hallmarks of the pantry.
“We’re not able to do what our hearts set out to do with this ministry — it’s heartbreaking and it’s high-pressure and everybody feels it,” Schmidt said.
Trestle Partners, which manages the property at 1123 Fort Worth Drive where Freedom Pantry is located, said they’ve attempted to work with the ministry to mitigate issues temporarily until they find a new space.
“We are in the process of working to execute an agreement to allow them to stay, for a period of time, with some adjustments to their operations to accommodate the other tenants within our complex while they are seeking to find a more suitable location for their longer-term operations,” Trestle Partners managing broker Ryan Davenport said in an email. “It has always been the goal of Trestle Partners and the building ownership to work out an amicable solution to the logistics and operational issue at the pantry. We wish the pantry luck in securing a new location that will be more suitable for their long-term operations.”
For Schmidt and others at the pantry, their only goal is to get back to focusing on clients. Though the staff hopes the pantry will be a temporary resource for many families, for others, it’s become critical to their lives.
Don Wood, 80, helped the first owner open the pantry over a decade ago and has been coming to get food with his wife for years. With limited income in retirement, Wood said the pantry has been essential to helping them stay on their feet.
“I’ve actually reached out and helped other people because of the pantry,” Wood said.
It’s people like Wood the pantry hopes to serve more of. With a bigger space, not only could Freedom return to a model of client choice, but staff could also help reach more people.
Though the pantry’s lease does not end until December 2024, Schmidt said it’s clear the sooner the pantry finds a new place, the better. After a meeting between both parties’ attorneys last week, the landlord proposed moving the car line to the back of the property with clients entering from Locust Street, but pantry staff believe it will violate city ordinance if the line blocks traffic — which would open them up for eviction. That proposal would also give the pantry four to six months to find a new space, if they comply with requests from Trestle.
If pantry leadership doesn’t accept the terms, Trestle and the landlord will pursue eviction, according to an email forwarded to the Denton Record-Chronicle.
Davenport says Trestle is still willing to work with the pantry, but after nearly a year of back-and-forth, eviction remains on the table if the parties cannot find a temporary solution.
Without another space to move to, eviction would mean the pantry’s closure, which staff fear will leave many of their clients without options.
“I am sick to my stomach thinking of the impact on the many elderly, disabled, homeless and families that will suffer from an eviction,” Schmidt said. “Food shortages are a real thing and finances are a real thing for people, and because they can come every day based on what they need, it’s freeing people up to be able to pay their electric and other expenses that have skyrocketed.
“The need is only growing.”