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San Antonio Food Bank Prepares To Help The Poor Face Coronavirus Fears

Bonnie Petrie | Texas Public Radio
San Antonio Food Bank volunteer Ricahrd Polee sorts donated food.

Coronavirus concerns have led to bare store shelves across the country. People are stocking up on supplies they might need if they have to stay home for weeks. But stocking up costs money, and not everyone can even buy the basics, let alone extra.

That’s an issue non-profits are trying to address. In San Antonio, the local food bank serves nearly 60,000 people a week. Among them is Carol Lisette Castilla. Like most Americans, she has coronavirus on her mind.

“It’s kind of worrying because when you have kids, you always think about them first, you know? The mom can always wait, but not the kids,” Castilla said.

She’s heard the food bank may be able to help with her coronavirus necessities list, which is no different from anyone else’s.  

“Sanitizer. Wipies and stuff like that. Canned food. Tuna and stuff like that that’s already prepared,” she said

On the other side of the Food Bank building, volunteers and food bank President and CEO Eric Cooper are hard at work.  

“This is the room where we pack the boxes and get them ready to go out to families and lots of different non-perishable food items are donated to us and they need to be inspected,” Cooper said. “They need to be categorized and then they need to be put in a box that would ultimately get to a family.”

He gestured toward the rows of empty boxes being assembled by a volunteer, efficiently wielding a large packing tape dispenser. Cooper says their clients — low-income families and fixed-income older folks — are vulnerable in a time of crisis

“They don't have a pantry full of food, their refrigerators empty and the thought of being prepared for a crisis like this can be overwhelming,” Cooper said.

When those who struggle financially see everyone else rushing to get extra food and supplies, it’s stressful, Cooper observed.

Credit Bonnie Petrie | Texas Public Radio
Hand sanitizer is available in abundance at the San Antonio Food Bank.

“It's humbling to think when I went to the grocery store this past weekend, seeing the depletion… that people without the financial means don't have the ability to, to make that run to the grocery store to at least find some comfort in being somewhat prepared,” he pointed out.


Not only can’t they stock up on food, but public benefits like SNAP don’t cover non-food supplies like hand sanitizer and wipes and bleach. So the food bank is putting together what Cooper calls Preparedness and Prevention packages.

“Which is a little bit more food than we would normally give with more non-food items, like those cleaning supplies, that we really think can help those families,” Cooper said.

To make this happen, Cooper estimates they’ll need 15 million extra pounds of goods; donations of food and money. And one more thing.

“We're standing in our sorting room, and there's some amazing volunteers, but to be honest, this room’s usually packed. We've seen a decline in some of our volunteers showing up,” Cooper said.

It’s not because San Antonio has suddenly become a less altruistic city. Volunteers, too, are afraid of the virus. It’s become an issue for food banks across the country — especially in places like Seattle — as more  people stay home.

Those sorting at the San Antonio food bank today are, so far, undeterred. 

“They have sanitizers all through here, so no… we’re not even worried about that at all,” smiled volunteer Richard Polee.

What if more cases of coronavirus started to spread widely in San Antonio?

“Oh, I would still come,” Polee added. “As long as I can help. I mean, I was in the military. So as long as I'm kicking, as long as I'm breathing, I'm going to fight the good fight.”

Food bank president Eric Cooper says — in the event of some sort of quarantine in the city — they’ll need a lot more volunteers to get food to people who need it.

“Many of our distributions are mobile. They’re in urban and rural settings. They might be in a parking lot. We do drive-throughs. And so those are the strategies we’ll be invoking to try to get people food,” Cooper said.

That someone knows this crisis is also a crisis for people like her, and is doing something about it, is reassuring for San Antonio Food Bank client Carol Lisette Castilla.

“It gives, like, peace. And rest, you know?”

The San Antonio Food Bank hopes to distribute 300,000 Preparedness and Prevention packages over the next month.

To donate, you can go here or put items in the red, food bank barrels at the grocery store.

To volunteer, go here.

Bonnie Petrie can be reached at Bonnie@TPR.org and on Twitter at @kbonniepetrie.