Huge Demand, Long Lines and Low Funds: Texas Food Banks Scramble in Pandemic

Sixty Five Hundred event space is now home to a temporary additional warehouse and food box assembly space for the North Texas Food Bank.EXPAND
Sixty Five Hundred event space is now home to a temporary additional warehouse and food box assembly space for the North Texas Food Bank.
Valerie Hawthorne
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Across Texas, food banks are being squeezed from both ends: They're facing significant increases in operating expenses and demand for food supplies. Meanwhile, fewer volunteers are showing up to help, and food donations have declined.

As Texans lose work because of coronavirus closures and layoffs, many are turning to food banks to help put food on the table. Before Dallas' shelter-in-place order went into effect, North Texas Food Bank's mobile pantries each served about 100 people on a typical day. Now, each pantry might see as many as 800 clients per day. Even as they scramble to meet that need, 40% of food banks supported by the nonprofit Feeding Texas are already critically short on funding.

“I would say that two weeks ago, one-third of our food banks seemed really engaged and concerned, and now all of them are,” said Celia Cole, chief executive officer for Feeding Texas.

The economic impacts of the coronavirus have not fully appeared, but Cole expects that even more people will need food in the next couple of months. Right now, to meet the increase in demand, the food banks will need an extra 40 million pounds of food.

And while the two coronavirus relief bills passed by Congress included some support and relief for food banks, it’s unclear when that will come through. Cole has been told that they shouldn’t expect extra federal funds and food until July.

“What we’re describing is a three-month hunger gap,” Cole said.

In Dallas, in order to address that gap, the North Texas Food Bank opened a temporary warehouse in Sixty Five Hundred, an events venue just east of Dallas Love Field. The warehouse will operate at least through the end of April. Since most public events in Dallas are on hold, the space isn’t being used. It has been repurposed to hold five conveyor belts and set up for volunteers and employees to assemble 27-pound food boxes.

Each box contains nutritious, shelf-stable food like rice, lentils, peanut butter, canned fruits and vegetables, and soup. Once a box is complete it is shrink-wrapped and added to a pallet to be distributed by trucks to food banks and mobile pantries.

On Monday, staff at the new warehouse assembled 97 pallets consisting of 4,704 boxes or 105,804 meals, using four of the five conveyor belts, said Valerie Hawthorne, the North Texas Food Bank government relations director.

Hawthorne now helps run the warehouse. Many food bank employees have taken on additional responsibilities to make sure the food banks can meet the new level of demand.

“We’re all pitching in. It’s sort of like hit the floor in the morning and open your email at night,” she said.

The warehouse, which began operating last Thursday, employs laid-off hospitality workers through a partnership with ShiftSmart and the Communities Foundation of Texas. At the start of a shift, workers fill out a short survey and have their temperatures taken by an on-site health team to make sure everyone who comes to work is healthy. Workers in the warehouse maintain social distance and follow strict hand-washing procedures. Since Thursday, workers have ramped up production slowly, to make sure the safety procedures can be maintained, Hawthorne said.

At their mobile pantry sites, in addition to a significant increase in demand, workers report hearing more anxiety from clients, Hawthorne said.

“Since the shelter-in-place order, people are not feeling as secure. They’re worried about where the next meal is coming from,” she said.

On Tuesday, one mobile pantry reported distributing 1,260 boxes in two hours. When the food was gone, the police turned away a two-mile line of cars still waiting, Hawthorne said. At those mobile pantries, people who have lost jobs or income can self-report income up to 185% of the federal poverty limit to qualify for USDA-issued food.

Once boxes are assembled, they're shrink-wrapped and loaded onto pallets to be distributed to food banks and mobile pantries.EXPAND
Once boxes are assembled, they're shrink-wrapped and loaded onto pallets to be distributed to food banks and mobile pantries.
Valerie Hawthorne

In order to accommodate increased demand and decreased sources of food, Cole hopes that food banks can get disaster funding and USDA-issued food through Texas' state-level disaster procedures. But whereas in the case of a natural disaster there are clear parameters to trigger extra food and funding, the system isn’t set up for an ongoing and evolving event like a pandemic, Cole said.

During Hurricane Harvey, for example, food banks received food and funding in places where grocery stores were closed. Those whose homes were damaged or destroyed automatically qualified to receive food. Resources from nearby, unaffected areas shifted to the Houston area and donations poured in. But now, every area is affected, and the triggers to release resources aren’t as clear-cut.

“This disaster has thrown thousands and thousands of Texans out of work, and even if they can get to a grocery store and shop safely … it doesn’t matter if they don’t have money for food,” Cole said.

Soon, families with school-age children who qualify for free and reduced lunch will get some extra help, at least. Those families will be issued what Cole calls pandemic EBT cards, which are just like the cards families receive regular benefits on, but they account for the meals that children would have had at school, while schools are closed.

But aside from the extra demand, Cole says, the food banks have to continue to serve their regular clientele, as well as those who have a short-term need for extra food because of the economic impacts of the coronavirus.

“We need to keep up with our daily obligation to meet the disaster of poverty,” Cole said.

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