Thanksgiving is a time when many families gather to eat a traditional holiday meal, but this year, thousands of North Texans need help getting food on the table. Coronavirus-induced unemployment has caused unprecedented numbers of people to seek assistance from local food banks ahead of the holiday season.
Last weekend, the North Texas Food Bank made national news when it provided 25,000 people with meals. The event at Fair Park served more people than the NTFB has in any event in its 38-year history, said communications specialist Liana Solis.
“We are distributing more food than ever before, and are now working to meet the need for those not only we have already been serving, but also those who have never needed assistance until the pandemic hit,” Solis said in an email.
Since the coronavirus pandemic began, the state's food insecurity rate has more than doubled from 13% of households in 2019 to 31% in July, Solis said. From March to August, Texas food banks have given out more than 400 million pounds of food, a 60% increase compared with the same period in 2019.
Nearly 900,000 North Texas residents are considered food insecure, Solis said.
Although the NTFB isn’t in danger of experiencing a food shortage, Solis said the U.S. Department of Agriculture canceled shipments of 221 truckloads of food within the last four months. That type of fluctuation isn’t acceptable, she said, as it inhibits the food bank from making supply predictions in a long-term response.
Solis said the organization is calling on the USDA to provide additional resources for food banks. Congress also needs to increase Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits by 15%.
Friday, Tarrant Area Food Bank hosted its own food drive at AT&T Stadium in Arlington. More than 9,000 families were fed Thanksgiving meals in around a day and a half, said the food bank’s CEO and President Julie Butner.
Included in the 85 pounds of food each family received was a 15-pound turkey, along with pantry items and sides, Butner said. In the counties they serve, 1 in 4 children and 1 in 6 adults are food insecure.
“Thanksgiving, Christmas, the holidays are always very, very busy,” Butner said. “But this year in particular, there’s just so much more need because of job loss and people are really struggling because of the pandemic.”
Since the coronavirus hit the state in March, more than 3.8 million Texans have filed for unemployment relief, according to The Texas Tribune. Texas’ unemployment rate is nearly double what it was at the start of the year.
The unemployment rate in Dallas was 8.4% this September — more than double what it was before the start of the pandemic, according to financial data and charting service YCharts.
Even before the pandemic, the holidays have always been busy for the nonprofit food pantry Denton Community Food Center, said board chairman Tom Newell. Thanksgiving in particular is the organization’s “pivotal peak of the year.”
“If there’s any time that people think of hunger, from a donation standpoint but also from a need, Thanksgiving’s it,” Newell said. “Thanksgiving’s all about counting our blessings and having food.
“And then there’s this whole issue about turkey,” he continued.
In previous years, Newell said DCFC couldn’t serve turkey because of a lack of space and funding. This Thanksgiving, however, they were able to procure turkeys and hams thanks to a grant and new location, on top of aid from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.
There’s something about free turkey that draws all kinds of people, whether they’re struggling financially or not, Newell said.
“Free food brings people out of the woodwork; a free turkey absolutely brings everybody,” he said.
Newell said people have come from as far as Oklahoma to seek assistance since the coronavirus pandemic began. Denton County has a reputation of being a helpful, loving community, so it can attract people who are trying to “game the system.”
Last year, the nonprofit distributed 450,000 meals in 12 months, but they’ve dealt 700,000 meals since the COVID-19 crisis started. Newell predicts DCFC will clear 1 million meals by the end of the year.
Before the pandemic, Newell said he would work at the nonprofit around 10 hours per week; these days, it's more like 60. Regardless, Newell said he’s focused on helping others survive this crisis.
“I’m just trying to feed one family at a time,” he said.
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