With millions of people out of work because of the coronavirus, food banks have seen a major surge in demand since March. But August is set to be one one of the busiest months yet and that worries food bank operators.
That’s because not only is National Guard support set to end, but extra federal unemployment funds as well, which could push the demand for food banks even higher.
The two big changes are scheduled that have food banks bracing for the next few months.
"Those two things combined, make for a kind of perfect storm," said Celia Cole with Feeding Texas, the network of state food banks.
At the San Antonio Food Bank, a dozen National Guard members pack baked goods donated from a local grocer. They stack the boxes on two quickly growing pallets. The noise of the warehouse — the beeps of reversing forklifts, the shrill scrapes of wood on concrete and the buzz of large fans — all envelope the silent guard members. Likely a little more silent with the presence of a reporter’s large, furry microphone.
The Guard does this — or something like it — every weekday morning in San Antonio. In the afternoons, they often distribute the food, standing in triple digit temperatures.
Other Guard members, working on the Texas-Mexico border in Presidio, packed food boxes into trunks and truck beds of hundreds of hungry people’s vehicles, quickly and quietly working through the more than 400 families that arrived.
Texas’ 21 food banks struggle to find volunteers. People are scared to contract COVID-19. Older retirees are often the people that turn out to help and also teams of corporate volunteers. Both have dried up in many parts of the state.
The National Guard has been placed in about half the state’s food banks to offset that shortage three months ago. That’s about 1,000 Guard members, according to Feeding Texas. They have been praised universally by Food Banks in Texas as well as in California and Ohio for the professionalism they bring and their physical stamina. In Texas, food distributions mean a lot of long stints under a brutal sun.
In San Antonio, the food bank has been fortunate to operate at 90% volunteer capacity most of the time. But the Guard replaced nearly all of the volunteers at the West Texas Food bank.
“The Guard has been amazing. And we will have to go back to the drawing board when we lose them and say what we're going to do with volunteers,” said Kelly Dirden, chief program officer for the West Texas Food Bank. “The last four months have been really challenging, but going forward the next 30 to 50 days, it's going to be even more challenging.”
Members of the Guard are set to leave the San Antonio food bank in August. The federal order that pays for it ends in coming weeks. Some more remote food banks like Midland/Odessa's West Texas Food Bank have already seen them depart.
Food banks are asking to extend the Guard troops, and many people looking for work across the country are pushing for extensions on the federal benefits.
“It is essential that we get the pandemic unemployment relief passed,” said a protest organizer in downtown Austin last week through a tinny public announcement system.
About a dozen people turned out to the protest. They told their stories of job searches, struggles and made the case for why they needed $600 of weekly unemployment money extended.
In the crowd, Mark McKim says he was laid off as a substitute teacher and hasn’t been able to find work.
“It’s not like I haven’t been trying,” said McKim. “I’ve applied for 25 jobs and haven’t been able to get any of them even after interviewing for a couple and not … didn’t get it.”
McKim is a graduate student and said he already has had to turn to campus food pantries to help. If he loses the benefit, he will be turning to food banks even more.
“Those workers are now living on 65% of what they used to make pre COVID to keep their household afloat without that stimulus, they're just going to be slipping behind,” said Eric Cooper, CEO of the San Antonio Food Bank. His operation saw 10,000 families show up to a single distribution in April. Cooper expects another spike in the coming weeks if benefits end next week.
“They're going to be looking for ways to make up that shortfall. And I would foresee longer lines at our distributions,” he said.
Food banks in this state are already giving away twice the amount they usually do. According to Celia Cole with Feeding Texas, the state’s food banks are feeding 390,000 families weekly.
"There have been a couple of instances recently where due to some of the sort of volunteer issues, we talked about labor challenges, just haven't been able to get everyone through the line quickly enough. And so we had to shut down before meeting the entire need,” said Cole.
She said she’s frustrated that there hasn’t been more federal help. Feeding America and food banks across the country have been pushing congress to extend Guard assistance and expand the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits by 15%, something Congress did in 2008 in the midst of the Great Recession.
Cole and many food bank directors would prefer Congress put more money in people’s pockets so they can wait in the checkout line instead of a food line.
Morgan O'Hanlon contributed reporting to this story.