A Larger Legacy

By: Lorne Chan Spurs.com

Eric Cooper hadn’t unpacked yet. He was a couple of days into being CEO of the San Antonio Food Bank in 2001 when he got a call.

“This is Gregg Popovich,” said the voice on the other line. “I coach the Spurs. How can I help?”

That call led to Monday night at The Grill at Leon Springs, where Danny Green was recommending the sea bass, Pau Gasol was sharing his favorite Spanish wine varietals and a night of work for the Spurs was creating a million meals for the hungry.

It was the sixth annual Champions Against Hunger Dinner, as the entire Spurs roster donned aprons and served dinner.

 “What the Food Bank does is unbelievable to me,” Manu Ginobili said. “We take a couple of hours every year because we know how hard the Food Bank works for so many people in the city. For us to be here serving food, it’s a unique opportunity to help.”

Ginobili said he still hasn’t improved as a waiter in six years, but the tips are pretty good. Champions Against Hunger has been the top fundraising event for the Food Bank every year.

The event has raised more than $1 million for the San Antonio Food Bank, which results in more than 7 million meals for the 58,000 South Texans the Food Bank serves each week.

“We get all kinds of notoriety because we put a ball in a hoop, and that’s really silly when you think about real life,” Popovich said. “The Food Bank puts food on tables for thousands and thousands of people. That’s real life and that’s meaningful. Basketball players and coaches, we can do what we do to try to be part of that, because what we do is absolutely unimportant compared to what Eric Cooper and his group do.”

Popovich and the Food Bank have long aligned in fighting one statistic:

One in four children in San Antonio faces food insecurity. They don’t know when their next meal will be served.

Popovich has taken the entire team on a tour of the Food Bank, where two million pounds of food is stored in the massive facility. With the Food Bank serving 16 counties in South Texas, that food lasts for 12 days.

The Food Bank’s goal is to provide 67 million pounds of food in 2017.

There’s the Spurs Community Garden outside of the main entrance, where thousands of pounds of food grow year round. Fresh produce makes up about 40 percent of the food that the Food Bank distributes.

“There’s a need in many cities across the country where people have to join in and help those who might not have as much as us,” Popovich said. “You can’t enjoy what you have if you don’t share it with someone else. That’s not just San Antonio, that’s all over the world.”

The rest of the Spurs have bought in as well. During training camp, a Food Bank volunteer visit was the first public appearance by some new Spurs including Dewayne Dedmon and Davis Bertans.

Cooper said players have also brought their families to the Food Bank to volunteer in the past, under the condition that the trip is kept private and no media is allowed.

Last year, former Spurs assistant coach Mike Budenholzer gave Cooper a call. Coach Bud, now head coach in Atlanta, said he loved volunteering at the Champions Against Hunger dinner and wanted to know how to help. Budenholzer launched the Assists For Hunger Program, pledging to donate $15 for every Hawks assist to the Atlanta Community Food Bank.

“You get committed because you start to know the people on the other side,” Ginobili said. “You see the people who are volunteering, donating and the people being helped. You get a relationship and it becomes more personal.”

While San Antonio continues to grow and thrive as a city, the statistics can be a bit misleading.

The San Antonio-New Braunfels metropolitan area saw the largest drop in the poverty rate among large U.S. cities last year, from 16.7 percent to 14.6 percent. But because the city continues to grow at a rapid pace, the Food Bank is serving more people, not fewer.

According to the San Antonio Express-News, more than 275,000 of the city’s residents are living in poverty.

San Antonio still has one of the highest margins of spatial inequality in the country according to 2016’s Distressed Communities Index, meaning it has the widest gap between wealthy zip codes and impoverished ones.

“Poverty is a wrecking ball,” Cooper said. “When it comes to health and wellness and how long you’ll be on this earth, poverty is one of the most adverse factors.”

The Food Bank is also nearing completion on another location, the New Braunfels Food Bank about 30 miles north of San Antonio. The 28,000-square foot location will open this Summer.

As the need continues to grow, the Food Bank has had to work on inventive ways to fill stomachs and minds.

San Antonio’s first communities were missions, built almost 300 years ago. The farmers back then used a brilliant system called acequia irrigation to channel and preserve the water for their farms. They were able to grow grapes, melons, and pumpkins among other produce, supporting not only the residents of the Mission but settlements around it.

In history, the food bank found an opportunity.

Last year, the Food Bank partnered with the National Park Service to use 50 acres of land at Mission San Juan to farm and grow fresh produce. Some of the farmland uses the same acequia irrigation system.

Unless someone digs a garden at Stonehenge or Yellowstone National Park, San Antonio is the only food bank that grows produce on a UNESCO World Heritage Site

“The Spurs have a way of thinking outside the box, and we take that same mentality,” Cooper said.

For the Food Bank, there’s still more work to be done every day. As long as that’s the case, Cooper will continue receiving calls and encouragement from Popovich.

“I remember while the Spurs were on a road trip, Pop sent me an article about sustainable agriculture,” Cooper said. “I don’t know where the Food Bank would be without Pop. He has supported us, inspired us, and coached us about serving those in need.”