By: Paul Flahive
Rosario Cepeda never asked for help with food until the pandemic hit.
“I’m a hairstylist. (People now) know they can go a long time without doing anything to their hair,” she said sitting in her car at a mass food distribution event put on by the San Antonio Food Bank.
The number of people scheduling appointments is a fraction of what it was before.
“There’s no work. There’s no income,” she said “At least we for sure have food,” she said motioning with her hand to the hundreds of cars surrounding her in the parking lot of an unused stadium. Every other week it is converted for this purpose.
While the quarantine changed people’s habits, it hasn’t changed hers.
She is still a workaholic. She was in line at 5 a.m. for a food distribution that didn’t start until 9 a.m. Then she went to her salon in the afternoon and hoped someone would show up because she has more mouths to feed.
“My daughter has four kids and a husband. There’s no work and no rent, so they had to move into my house,” Cepeda said.
This was the second food distribution she had been to since April, but her pandemic assistance ran out and she will be forced to come more regularly.
It’s clear that many people are in the same boat.
Nowhere is the economic damage from the pandemic felt more — but seen less — than on the kitchen tables across the United States.
More than 1 in 10 Texans are turning to food banks and charity food programs to feed themselves.
“We’ve never experienced food insecurity at this level since we’ve been tracking the data for the last 20 years,” said Diane Whitemore Schanzenbach, Director of the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.
And food insecurity is much higher for Black and Latino families. Thirty-five percent of Black families in Texas were food insecure at the end of July. For Latinos it was 1 in 3, 12 percentage points higher than white families. It’s another example of how COVID-19 is having a bigger impact on people of color.
Thousands of cars form tightly packed lines across the state every week now to receive food. From Chihuahuan Desert border towns and cities to the staked plains of the panhandle, across the piney wood of deep East Texas, down to the Rio Grande and back cars stack, growing into steel and fiberglass caterpillars, hungry.
These events have distributed tens of millions of pounds of food over the past six months.
On April 9, more than 10,000 families were fed in a single event in San Antonio.
“We believe that was the largest domestic food distribution ever,” said Eric Cooper, San Antonio Food Bank president. The data showed something like 50,000 people were fed in the single event.
A drone photo of that day’s distribution captured by an Express-News photographer quickly went viral. For many it crystallized the need and a question: Could the pandemic go from being a public health and economic crisis to a humanitarian one?
Cooper agrees with Great Depression analogies being drawn by some experts about the need for food through this pandemic.
In the early 1930s, men in wool coats and trilby hats stood on packed sidewalks waiting for food. Today the sidewalks are replaced by the parking lots of unused stadiums, the wool coats — bracing men from the cold — are now cars shielding families from the intense summer heat of South Texas.
“I mean what are we even doing here? This is just crazy,” said Cooper looking out on the sea of cars parked in front of the Alamo waiting for food more than five months after that historic April distribution.
Just a few months prior, these mass feeding events would have been unthinkable to the food bank veteran.
“I had never seen lines this long in my life. I just, I couldn't even wrap my head around It. It's what you'd see at a Spurs game… but knowing it was a food distribution was so surreal,” he said.
The San Antonio Food Bank went from feeding 60,000 people a week to 120,000 in a matter of days.
The numbers across the state are virtually a mirror image, with each food bank doubling the number of people it served.
Texas has never been a stranger to poverty, but this was something different.
Through July the number of hungry Texans steadily grew, peaking at 3.6 million people who sometimes or often didn’t have enough to eat. It remains very high.
Disabilities, Mental Health And Hunger
Shannon never used the food bank as an adult before the pandemic. She lives on social security disability. Her life was recently thrown into disarray by a domestic violence event that took everything, including her food and clothes.
A social worker connected her with the San Antonio Food Bank.
She wasn’t looking forward to it. The only time she ever went to the food bank was with her grandmother many years ago.
“They would send her commodities. It was the cans, you know, the canned pork and the canned chicken. It was just awful,” Shannon recalled. “I would tell her, ‘This stuff is gross,’ and she'd say, ‘Child, be thankful for what you have.’”
Fast forward to now, she thought she knew what to expect from a charity food program. Instead, she was surprised.
She describes her trunk-load of groceries from the food bank as “the good stuff.”
“I was astounded. Corn, wild rice, milk and vegetables,” she said.
Now she’s excited to pick up food, which is good because on a recent trip she had to wait about 90 minutes.
After loading the boxes and thanking the volunteers, she hauled the food back to her apartment and kept only some of it for herself. She got enough for two families and — like she does every week — she set up her own distribution to feed her neighbors.
“I do that because in this community, everyone is disabled,” she said. “We're on Social Security, and many of them do not have cars.”
Many of her neighbors suffer from mental illness.
But the stress caused by the pandemic due to the loss of jobs or the threat of disease is rising as well. The number of people reporting in surveys they are anxious or depressed is very high, with more than 2 million across Texas reporting anxiety so bad they can’t control it several days a week.
While setting up a few of her neighbors strolled past. A man with a pandemic haircut and a long gray beard surveyed the bounty. His arms hung loose at his sides. Johnny Cash peeks out on his T-shirt over his high-waisted khaki shorts secured with a belt and suspenders.
“I was just looking. I was just looking,” he said happily backing away. Shannon shooed him from the boxes until she finished.
After her makeshift food pantry is laid out on the blacktop of her parking lot, Shannon sat in a nearby gazebo.
Eight people came out of their one-story brick duplexes and made their way into the parking lot. They wore masks and brought grocery bags or boxes. One used her walker as a grocery cart. A home health aide filled a paper bag for her client.
They shout thanks to Shannon as they depart.
Shannon described the turnout from her neighbors that day as average, and there was still some food left over.
After they leave, it’s clear Shannon felt better for doing something to help. Maybe it gave her a sense of control at a time when so much had been taken from her and at a time when none of us are really controlling anything.
She comes to the food bank every week even though it is technically against the rules.
Because of Shannon though, eight households on San Antonio’s West Side got food that day.
Are We Doing Enough?
The people interviewed for this story are just a few members of the 400,000+ families who now line up for food each week in Texas.
The extra pandemic assistance unemployed people were getting is long gone, and programs to feed low-income kids are up in the air as schools figure out how to be in session. That’s a big deal, as school districts across San Antonio feed many kids — more than 80% of children in some districts get free meals at school.
San Antonio Food bank president Eric Cooper has a lot of positive things to say about all the state, federal and community efforts — but with all those efforts there are still massive lines of people needing food.
“Yeah, it just sucks. It sucks,” he said. “No one wants to be sitting in their car getting food in a parking lot. They're doing it to survive.”
Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is tasked with handling this problem. It’s the largest program fighting hunger in the United States, and Northwestern’s Diane Shanzenbach said it’s pretty efficient.
“For every one meal that a food bank can provide, SNAP tends to provide eight. It's a very effective way to meet increasing needs,” she said.
That’s why Schanzenbach and dozens of food banks across the country want Congress to increase the maximum SNAP benefit by 15%, like they did in 2008. The data shows that 15% raise had the most impact of any program on the economy and helping poor people.
But Congress still hasn’t raised it.
“Frankly, it is shocking to me that this isn't just more of a no-brainer,” said Schanzenbach.
The move would get more people out of these long lines of cars and allow them to shop in grocery stores.
Texas Sen. John Cornyn said billions of dollars have been added to the program, “Part of the challenges are so many different programs, and so many different pipelines,” he said.
He isn’t wrong per se. The feds spent nearly a half-billion dollars feeding hungry Texans in June.
Congress allowed people on SNAP to get the current maximum, but that doesn’t help the families most in need. They likely already had the current maximum.
The government is pouring billions of dollars into food through SNAP and other programs. They are propping up food distributors through the Farmers to Families program — which will spend $4 billion to divert food that would have gone to restaurants to nonprofits. The country spent $2.2 billion on food that would have been bought by China but wasn’t because of the trade war. Instead, that food went to food banks.
But now as other programs end, Senate Republicans haven’t embraced increasing the total benefit.
SNAP is only one piece of a solution, and it comes with big barriers to eligibility that prevent many of the people reeling from COVID-19 now from entering. Things like owning a car that is too expensive and having too much in the bank cuts into or can bar you entirely from the program.
Having enough food to eat is something easily taken for granted, but the persistence of COVID-19 is changing that for millions of Texans.
A Hard Year
What preceded the incredible need in Texas was an executive order from Gov. Greg Abbott — along with local orders from across the state — closing bars, restaurants and schools to help stop the spread of COVID-19. In addition to people losing jobs, kids lost in-school meals.
Clint Carpenter was one of those impacted by a job market turned upside down. He was out of work for two months and saw his bank accounts drain.
“We had saved almost $10,000. We're down to $3,500 due to this pandemic,” he said.
Carpenter had gotten sick. He feared it was COVID but it turned out to be mono. The disease knocked him off his feet for a month. He would be fired from his job as a result.
He got another one, but on his first day three people were diagnosed with COVID, and he said he had to quit. He, his fiance and their two kids had moved in with his grandparents in December, and he couldn’t bear the thought of getting them sick.
The six of them live in a two-bedroom trailer in Seguin. The 40-minute drive east of San Antonio to the trailer is far to go for food, but the bi-weekly trips to the food bank have helped keep his family’s heads above water, he said. It keeps the kids fed at a time where childhood hunger is up more than 460% nationally.
The food bank has become a part of his family's routine while they get back on their feet. The 23-year-old drives to the food distributions nearly every other week.
Routines have become important to Carpenter. Part of his daily routine is going to work each day at his new job constructing sheet metal buildings.
“I've got little cuts all over me,” he said, “These metal buildings don't play.”
Each day he gets off work he then picks up his two sons, 6-year-old Dane and 18-month-old Cash. He then drives them 40 minutes north to another small town where his fiance Skylar works. He can drop Dane off at football practice, and Skylar can pick him up after working several hours of overtime. He then cares for Cash.
Routines also help him stay sober. For the past year he has been working on a program to abstain from alcohol and drugs. It is the longest he has been without a drink since he was 12 years old.
It has been a challenging year. The depression that came along with losing his job coupled with the anxiety of not having the steady income.
He said if he didn’t have the food from the food bank, he couldn’t make ends meet.
“I’d be out of money in a month,” he said.
The family is trying to rebuild. They want to save enough to buy a house, or a trailer to locate on his grandfather’s lot. Both parents take any overtime they can.
They — like many people across Texas — are in many ways, just hanging on.
“My freezer’s full because of the food drive. They've provided us with more than enough,” he said. “I still have food leftover from last month, which is already-cooked beef fajita meat. I can make tacos, I can make fajita salad. I can make all kinds of different things with this stuff.
“It does get tiring sometimes eating the same thing, but we're grateful. That's what matters.”
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