A Year Of Sprinting: TPR Talks With San Antonio Food Bank CEO Eric Cooper About Pandemic Hunger
Friday marked the one-year anniversary of one of the biggest domestic food distributions in U.S. history. The San Antonio Food Bank loaded 10,000 cars that day at Traders Village, a flea market on the city’s South Side. They estimate it fed 50,000 people. TPR’s Paul Flahive spoke with San Antonio Food Bank CEO Eric Cooper about what the last year has been like in Texas and what the situation looks like now.
Paul Flahive: Over the past year you’ve told me that the photo that appeared in the San Antonio Express News changed the conversation around hunger in the city and in America at that time. But what was your first reaction to that photo?
Eric Cooper: I got home (from Traders Village) and got dinner going and grabbed my iPad, and just started to get caught up on email. And I saw the link to the Express-News article, and I saw the photo. And it was probably about 10 o'clock at night seeing that photo. And at first I was like, oh, 'That's us -- that was Traders Village.'
I hadn't understood it from that vantage point. You know, I had seen it at my level. And that was, you know, the chaos that I was dealing with. The photo showed what statistics that my stories couldn't. It showed what was needed in our city. It showed the disparity. It showed the unraveling. It disrupted thinking. The cars, they were confusing, like ‘Is that is that the Toyota plant or...What is that?’
Flahive: So a year later Texas we know that unemployment has dropped to 6.9%. Have your lines shrunk?
Cooper: It really hasn't. I mean, I think that's the discouraging side of our reality is all this optimism in the marketplace hasn't, you know, brought the demand down significantly? As significantly as it is it rose and I think that's the pickle, right.
You know, it turned on a dime. And I think it was when the furloughs started and the kids that had been out of school for now a couple of weeks that we started to see that paycheck-to-paycheck economy start to just unravel.
Texas has an opportunity, I think, to change its destiny. We can't be all right, as a society, thinking that the food bank should be a part of a low-wage employer's benefit package. I mean, it's just, that's wrong.
Flahive: While unemployment as a whole is down in Texas, the Census surveys show that more than 10% of people surveyed in the state still lack enough to eat. The national average is 7 percent, falling both of the last two surveys. Texas remained the same. Why do you think that is?
Cooper : Yeah, I think this is this the conversation of where were we pre-pandemic, and where are we at today? And the reality was, Texas was always second to Mississippi with the most food insecure households. And so has that changed? No. We still have a very high rate of food insecurity. Texas has an opportunity, I think, to change its destiny. We can't be all right, as a society, thinking that the food bank should be a part of a low-wage employer's benefit package. I mean, it's just, that's wrong.
Flahive: What does that mean to you?
Cooper: In my opinion, that means, employers looking at how they make their jobs all sustainable for them and their employees. So that could be living wages, that could be offering increased benefits. But ultimately, we got to get families out of these parking lots to get food and into grocery stores.
Flahive: We know that the numbers will come down. There are a lot of programs that are coming online that, predictions are, will reduce childhood hunger. Jobs will come back and people will go back to work. What are some of your long-term concerns?
Cooper: I definitely worry about the equity that's been robbed from a lot of households, because of the pandemic. They've spent their retirement. They've spent their savings. They've borrowed and they've gone into debt. And as they come out of the pandemic, and back into the economy, and try to catch up, will they age out of the economy with enough time to rebuild their equity so that they retire financially secure or securer?
Because I worry that there will be a kind of a pandemic Boomer that will be in my line because they lost so much ground.
I mean, I think we've always known that people aren't planning enough. And in that, you know, we're not saving enough. But what was robbed? Can it be repaid in a timely fashion that would prevent them from going without in those twilight years?
Flahive: You mentioned you don’t really have time to look long-term though. That the demand is too high and too much is outside of your control?
Cooper: You just got to put food on the table today. And I think that's that's a little bit of where my head is. All I know is that if someone's hungry, we're going to do all we can to make sure they eat and the length of our line. I hope it shrinks but I don't know for sure.
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