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Texas Food Banks Ask For Help To Support Surge Of People In Need

Julia Reihs/KUT
Volunteers for the Central Texas Food Bank distribute food to clients at Linder Elementary School in Austin in March.

From Texas Standard:

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, food banks across the country are tasked with serving those in need from all walks of life. And many people are using food bank services for the first time.

In Texas, food banks are doing what they can to help those facing food insecurity, but they face many challenges.

Derrick Chubbs, president and CEO of the Central Texas Food Bank, says the pandemic has been a major test for his organization.

"Nothing has stretched our ability to serve Central Texans as much as COVID-19," he says.

The need for food bank services in his 21-county area has increased by as much as 300%.

Libby Campbell is executive director of the West Texas Food Bank where the recent oil bust, coupled with the pandemic, have deeply hurt the local economy. Laid off oil industry workers had been using the food bank even before the pandemic hit her area, so her organization had somewhat of a head start in ramping up its services. But the pandemic is making it harder to meet everyone's needs.

Campbell's food bank serves an area of West Texas the size of Maine, and demand for services has gone up by about 50%. Many of the people hit hardest by the slowing economy are restaurant and hotel employees – service industry workers who serve the transient oil industry workforce.

Erica Yeager, chief external affairs officer for the North Texas Food Bank, says layoffs and furloughs are driving more people to her mobile food bank pantries. As many as 1,000 families have shown up at those pantries recently, compared to about 300 before the pandemic. In some cases, 70% of people using the food bank are doing so for the first time. And like in West Texas, Yeager says she see service industry workers as especially in need.

"The issue of food insecurity is growing exponentially," Yeager says.

With more families coming to her sites, Yeager says her food bank has had to change its production and distribution methods.

"It's all drive-through, low-touch distributions," she says. "We are procuring ... about 25 pounds worth of shelf-stable food, including canned protein, canned fruits, canned vegetables."

Getting that food is more of a challenge for all three food banks because of the current stress on the grocery supply chain. Normally, grocery stores donate surplus food to food banks. But now, many stores simply don't have food to give. That means food banks have to buy food.

On top of the that, food banks have to protect their workers and volunteers in the field, Chubbs says.

"We also have to determine what the balance is between minimizing the risk that's associated with our staff and volunteers, and try to meet the growing need," he says.

Food insecurity is something many Texans will likely experience for awhile. All three food bank leaders say monetary donations will be essential to keeping their services running, especially because Chubbs says buying food isn't a normal part of the food bank business model. Yeager says donations will help support lower-income workers who will likely feel the greatest effects of the economic slowdown.

"The impacts of this virus are going to be long-standing, especially for those people that are living paycheck to paycheck," she says. "The need for support is not going to go away."

Written by Caroline Covington.

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