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San Antonio

Hunger Remains Issue For Many Texans, 1 Year After Pandemic Began

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Paul Flahive
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Food Bank Volunteer checks in woman at one of its mass food distributions / File Photo

Maybe you remember this photo. A year ago today, thousands of cars waited in line to receive food from a flea market parking lot in San Antonio, Texas. A photograph of that line spread around the world, and it showed just how hard families have been hit by the COVID recession. Sadly, a year later, hunger is still an issue for millions of Texans.

As job losses soar across the country, more people are seeking food assistance. A sea of cars lined up Friday for groceries from the San Antonio Food Bank in Texas.
As job losses soar across the country, more people are seeking food assistance. A sea of cars lined up Friday for groceries from the San Antonio Food Bank in Texas.

Norma Vasquez is waiting in a line of cars at a park on San Antonio's southwest side. She's waiting for food in what has become a humid day.

"How are you doing today?," asks Kelly Figueroa, a San Antonio Food Bank employee.

"I'm doing good, mija, doing good," she says.

"Good. All right, well, I'm going to go ahead and get you checked in. How many in your house?

"Me and my son," Vasquez replies

Vasquez says she's sat in lines like this more than a dozen times since the pandemic began. The woman in her 60s on disability says she's grateful for the help and happy the line isn't too long - it's about 100 cars - and doesn't compare to what it was like a year ago. She remembers seeing the thousands of cars crammed together.

"I just said, wow. I said, well, we've got tacos, mija, and we've got a soda, so we'll be OK (laughter)," she says

That day, it took her three hours to receive the boxes of food, as volunteers and employees of the San Antonio Food Bank worked to feed 10,000 families. But a year later, she's still in line. Today, she's one of more than 2.2 million Texans, more than 1 in 10 surveyed, who the census says doesn't have enough to eat. So while unemployment's been cut in half the past few months, that hasn't lessened the need in Texas and elsewhere for food assistance.

"All right, so we have some veggies here. We have bell peppers," says Bianca Rosales describing the contents of the grocery bags packed with produce.

"Luckily, we have a good line," she says "We can get these out pretty quickly 'cause it's pretty hot out here."

The food bank does one large distribution a week and has as many as 20 smaller ones like this one to try and keep up.

Maricelida Morales borrowed her brother's car to pick up food for herself and her three kids at the food bank.

"Let me give you the eggs up in the front," says the man packing the back with fruits, vegetables, and more.

Morales says increased payments from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and renewed pandemic food benefits for her school-age children help, but they still struggle.

"The stimulus check that I received - I was behind about $2,000 in rent, so that's what I did with that. But we have a roof over our heads, so I'm not - I don't complain about it," she said.

San Antonio Food Bank CEO Eric Cooper says February's deadly winter storms in Texas added to the struggles. And despite stock market and job gains, he still needs 2,000 volunteers a week. His food bank still serves around double pre-pandemic numbers - about 120,000 people a week.

"I thought maybe I could understand - when stimulus checks hit, surely the lines will be shorter, but they weren't. When the extra unemployment ran out, surely my line would be longer, but it wasn't. It's just stayed fairly constant," Cooper said.

There is hope. The census shows that since December, the number of people who didn't have enough to eat dropped by more than 10 million. And finally, food insecurity is consistently improving for Black and brown families, where it was most dire. And the White House changes to things like the earned income tax credit, which sends more money to families with kids.

"When you sort of pull in all of the different aspects of this - relief payments, it's, you know, expected to reduce child poverty by more than half next year. That can make somebody pretty excited," said Schanzenbach.

Diane Schanzenbach is director of Northwestern's Institute for Policy Research. She's optimistic because of recent policy changes. But she also realizes that this crisis has been going on a long time

"One thing I'm really worried about is, are we going to run out of energy for, you know, continuing to provide relief before the need is no longer elevated?"

Recessions, she says, always last longer for the poor.