Across the state, demand for assistance from food banks is off the charts as thousands of Texans who are suddenly out of work because of the coronavirus pandemic are visiting their local nonprofits in search of pantry staples to feed their families.
At the same time, food banks are facing brand new challenges that make it more difficult than ever to keep their shelves stocked.
Volunteers are scarce as Texans are being encouraged to stay at home to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. And on the supply side, food is harder to come by since grocery stores have less surplus to donate because their own shelves are still depleted from panic buying.
“If this were a normal natural disaster like Hurricane Harvey, there's automatically a fire hose of resources that flow to our food banks during that time," said Jamie Olson, director of government affairs for the food bank network Feeding Texas, which serves 4.5 million Texans annually. But because of the pandemic, “instead of that fire hose, we're drinking from a water fountain.”
Grocery stores depleted
CitySquare Food Bank used to give out about 75 pounds of food daily, said Liz Salas, who works at the Dallas nonprofit. But she said last week the pantry was only able to give away less than half of that per day because it's receiving smaller shipments from the grocery stores it relies on.
It's not alone.
“The primary source of donated food is the retail community, and that tends to be flowing out as quickly as they can bring it in,” said Dan Maher, president of the Southeast Texas Food Bank.
Many food banks are enrolled in surplus programs in which grocers donate food they can no longer sell — like granola bar boxes with a missing bar, crushed cereal packages and baked goods nearing the expiration date — but for weeks, grocery stores have been limiting their donations because of their own dwindling supply.
Grocery stores are still donating perishable food like fruits, vegetables and baked goods with some regularity, but items with longer shelf lives like canned goods, pastas and beans are harder to source.
Food banks typically supplement the donated food they get from stores with direct purchases. But they’re facing the same empty shelves as their patrons, and grocery stores can’t always fill their bulk orders.
“That the crazy part. What we normally tell people is the monetary donations help us the most,” said Desta Crawford, board president of the Hereford Food Pantry in the Texas panhandle. “Well, right now we have money, and we couldn’t get our hands on the food.”
Grocery stores like Texas’ H-E-B are still donating money and food to local pantries. But Celia Cole, CEO of Feeding Texas, says on the whole, the food donations from grocers are far from the usual amount and not nearly enough to meet the unprecedented demand.
Grocery stores say they’re still doing the best they can.
“Donations from our stores are continuing across the country, and we are donating as much as we can,” Tricia Moriarty, a Walmart spokesperson, said in a statement.
Volunteers at the CitySquare Food Bank in Dallas help unpack a shipment of produce. Courtesy Liz Salas
The shortage of food donations is exacerbated by the explosion of demand food banks are seeing as more people lose their jobs and see their income cut. More than 275,000 Texans filed for unemployment benefits in a single week last month.
Many food banks are seeing a spike in new patrons — many who’ve never visited a food pantry before.
Last week, a man pulled up at the CitySquare Food Bank in Dallas with a printed out layoff letter and eyes brimming with tears, Salas said. “I don’t know what to do, this is my first time,” she recalled him saying.
The Friday before public schools announced they would provide to-go lunches for students, Crawford said she met several mothers who kept apologizing to her for even being at the pantry. Their kids would be home all day, they were out of groceries and the store was out of what was needed, they’d explain.
“It was pretty heartbreaking,” Crawford said.
In the last two weeks, so many people have gone to the food banks that some distribution centers are turning people away because they’ve run out of food boxes, Cole said.
“When we asked our food banks, 'Are you in danger of running out of food to the point where you may have to stop distributing at all in the next two to four weeks?’ three of our 21 food banks said yes,” Cole said.
Last week, the North Texas Food Bank served 850 families on average, about four times its usual average, said Valerie Stone Hawthorne, the food bank’s government relations director.
“Food banks are not strangers to disaster. We show up and we help out, but the demands we're seeing at this time are levels of demand no food bank has ever seen before,” Stone Hawthorne said.
The federal coronavirus relief bills appropriated money for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to buy and distribute additional food for states. But the USDA told food banks it’ll take months to fulfill their orders because of strain on the supply chain, Cole said.
“That money won’t turn into food at our pantries until July at the earliest,” Cole said.
Meanwhile, food bank workers are calling for loosened eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and automatic maximum benefit payout — which would have to be done at the federal and state levels, respectively — to alleviate some of the need that food banks fill.
“People often run out toward the middle of the month even in good times,” Cole said. “We don't expect any of that to change in this environment.”
Even if they had enough food, the nonprofits are running out of volunteers.
Early on, Crawford said she had to ask “the Bettys” — two of her pantry’s oldest and most dedicated volunteers, both named Betty — to pause their work until the world was safer for them to return.
At a lot of food banks and pantries, the most loyal volunteers are elderly folks, an at-risk group for COVID-19. Many younger volunteers are heeding recommendations to stay at home.
This week, the Texas National Guard deployed 250 of its members to serve in food banks across the state, Stone Hawthorne said.
When food banks manage to get volunteers, they’re limited in how many people can be in the same space at once.
But despite the challenges, food bank leaders say they’ll find a way to persevere and serve the community that needs them now more than ever.
“Everyday brings a new challenge, and we just pivot and pivot and pivot and pivot,” Stone Hawthorne said.
Disclosure: H-E-B and Walmart have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.