Volunteers walked up long side-by-side lines of cars filling up just a portion of the massive parking area surrounding Oak Hills Church, north of San Antonio. Going from one driver’s window to the next, they checked in families waiting to receive food. It was hot, but everyone agreed at least it wasn’t as bad as the day before. Up over 100 degrees.
“I’ll put this under here and tell them that you are picking up for more than one,” said one volunteer, placing half a piece of standard blue copy paper under the car’s wiper blade.
About 218 cars had filed through, and more were waiting in the hot sun to receive boxes filled with 20-25 lbs of produce and another with gallons of milk. This church-run event was part of the U.S. Agriculture Department's program aimed at connecting food distributors with families and food banks.
The program, set up in record time, had ambitious goals of more than 40 million meals delivered, but it is unlikely they will reach those goals.
The church’s mass feeding event was in addition to ones conducted by the San Antonio Food Bank that have ranged from 1,500 to 10,000 cars.
The Farmers to Families Food Box program has delivered more than 17 million boxes of food to families in need across the country in one month, according to invoices provided to the USDA.
But Texas has only received about 15 percent of what it asked for, according to Feeding Texas, and that’s failing to relieve many food banks across the state who have few alternatives.
San Antonio Food Bank President Eric Cooper said the city is getting boxes from the program, but far fewer than it thought it would and far fewer than it needs.
“The COVID-19 crisis pressure that comes with a demand that far outpaces the supply," he explained, “and believing that possibly this Farm to Family food box program might help alleviate some of that...food banks have just seen the inequity of the program.”
The USDA recently announced it would extend the contracts of select vendors, but didn’t say which ones. Cooper and others, while grateful for the assistance, are hoping for changes.
“Yeah, there's gaps, and so the program hasn't worked as well as it was intended," said Celia Cole, CEO of Feeding Texas, the statewide network of food banks.
“Some food banks have been winners, others have been losers,” she added. “Some communities have been winners. Others have been losers.”
Large swaths of Texas have seen no benefit from the program.
“We haven't seen any impact from COVID box program. We have not received one single box or anything like that,” said Libby Campbell, executive director of the West Texas Food Bank.
She wasn’t alone. In addition to her 19-county region, the South Texas Food Bank, representing much of the border, and the High Plains Food Bank regions have been overlooked.
Combined, these areas are larger than many states. The population of just its larger cities is over 600,000.
All the while, they are seeing record-setting needs.
For instance, the South Texas Food Bank is seeing a 200% increase in demand while facing a 1.5 million lb gap in food. That fact is exacerbated by some of the Farmers to Families contractors.
“Some vendors were awarded contracts that shouldn’t have been,” Cole said.
The biggest contract awarded just in this region went to San Antonio-based CRE8AD8. The wedding planning business had no experience in this industry, no facilities, no license, and no trucks. It has struggled to deliver on its $40 million contract.
According to the San Antonio Food Bank, it expects to see just one week’s worth of food deliveries by the end of the 6 week contract.
The company’s relationships with other nonprofits have been hard to chart. And it declined to comment.
Lee Pipkin with the Concho Valley Food Bank in San Angelo said it wanted to work with them but couldn’t because CREA8AD8 wanted to send unboxed food. So instead of one truck of boxed up produce, meat and dairy, it would have been three or four different trucks.
“I can hold 24 total pallets between my cooler and my freezer. So there's no way in the world I was going to be able to handle up to 72 or more pallets that required refrigeration,” Pipkin said.
According to Pipkin, his food bank is the smallest in the state. Its facilities illustrate another problem of Farmers to Families.
When the USDA pitched the program to vendors and to food banks, multiple administrators said it would ideally be “Truck to Trunk,” meaning vendors would pack boxes and bring refrigerated trucks to drop off events and distribute them. It hasn’t worked out that way.
“They said they couldn't do that. They were just gonna ship it all to us and expect us to ignore the expense of delivering the box to the client. And, you know, none of that was as presented in the original program,” Pipkin said.
Many vendors are passing the cost of last-mile distribution on to food banks. That last mile becomes the last 115 miles for Pipkin, the extent of his service region. For Cambell in West Texas it's a one-way, seven hour drive to Presidio, which they do each month.
These organizations are already spending record amounts on food, with record few donations and volunteers.
Feeding Texas conducted a survey recently, and inadequate food, funds and volunteers were the top three concerns for food banks.
“If contractors aren't going to deliver, you know, they need to reimburse food banks’ part of their funds,” Cole said.
The first program contracts were set to expire at the end of the month but many have been extended. The USDA didn’t specify which companies or if CRE8AD8 is one of them. They said a full list would be out before July 1.
The USDA may give new vendors opportunities and pour as much as $1.8 billion more into the program. All indications are that the USDA believes the program has been successful.
Texas food banks don’t disagree. Many spoke of how impressed they were with the speed the program was set up as well as the product that has been delivered — for those that have gotten it.
But they want better coordination, equitable distribution and experienced vendors. It isn’t clear if contract extensions reflected these changes. Advocates said they would be disappointed if they didn’t but still hold out hope for any new contracts.
“What I am hoping happens is that USDA will look at a way to provide maybe some more incentives,” said Libby Campbell “That it's able to reach rural communities that desperately need support right now, because usually rural America is forgotten.”
Food banks need Farmers to Families, they say...but they also need it to be better.