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Getting 'Back To Normal' Not Good Enough For San Antonio Food Bank

Eric Cooper at a mass food distribution at the Alamodome May, 2020
Paul Flahive
Eric Cooper at a mass food distribution at the Alamodome May, 2020

In recent months Eric Cooper has heard the same things from business leaders and others in the community.

“I hear in so many circles, ‘Eric, we've got a labor shortage. What's going on at the food bank? It's time for those people to stop getting those benefits and get back to work,’” he said.

The president of the San Antonio Food Bank sees it differently. People hesitant to return to work are worried about care, health and wages. The pandemic isn’t over for everyone he says, and a lot of people are worried about underlying conditions. They’re figuring out childcare or eldercare as they finally leave the house.

“I think businesses are truly going to need to be offering a higher wage with some benefits that, you know, will bring labor back to the table,” he said.

Government interventions gave people a taste of a liveable wage. They don’t want to give it up.

While so many in the community want to get back to normal Cooper says that isn’t good enough. Normal left the community so fragile that within a paycheck’s worth of time in San Antonio, his facility was inundated with need. They were called on to feed record numbers.

REUTERS/Adrees Latif

For the past 14 months the San Antonio Food bank has held weekly mass food distributions, kicked off by one on the city’s South Side that saw 10,000 cars waiting for help.

The food bank estimates it feeds 120,000 people a week across the region — about twice what it was before the pandemic. Normal means no savings for many in the city.

Only in the last 6 weeks has the number of hungry Texans dropped below 10% for the first time the pandemic began, according to U.S. Census data.

Cooper’s lines are starting to shrink.

He and food bank staff — so used to watching their feet on the rocky path in front of them — are turning their eyes to the horizon.

Just going back to pre-pandemic levels still means 60,000 people need help every week with food, and are just a crisis away from disaster.

A San Antonio food bank volunteer helps to load a car at a mass distribution
Paul Flahive
A San Antonio food bank volunteer helps to load a car at a mass distribution

“Normal wasn't good enough. We need to change our destiny. We need to be more inclusive. We need to be more diverse. We need to be more equitable. We need to have a city that's secure,” said Cooper.

In coming weeks the food bank will launch Secure SA, to move the food banks focus beyond just food security and into building a more stable San Antonio

The food bank has traditionally worked with community partners like colleges, housing authorities and others to get food to people who need it. They will increase those partnerships, expand the scope and push for more dialogue.

He also wants to advocate more actively for things like a living wage and for paid time off.

“My clients always come to work sick. And the pandemic taught us to temperature check at the door to say, look, if you're sick don't come in, you'll affect all of us. And are we just going to go back to normal? Are my clients going to go back to work sick now?” he said.

San Antonio’s paid-sick-leave ordinance was defeated in the courts for violating the state’s minimum wage law.

Cooper has advocated for PTO and other issues that assist the poor, in the past. But in the hyper partisan world, he admits turning up the volume on that advocacy could put him at odds with some community members and donors.

Part of the urgency for acting now as the pandemic recovery takes hold is that for the past year Food Banks have been spotlighted as a common fixture of both hope and the intense struggle of many Americans.

“And never before in my career, has my visibility, notoriety and exposure been as great as it has been in the pandemic,” Cooper said.

Louisa Jonas
Texas Public Radio
Coach Popavitch has been a longtime supporter of the Food Bank

Publications from the New York Times and NPR to TMZ and Dr. Phil featured Cooper. Seemingly every local politician and a U.S. senator showed up to help or for a photo op. Celebrities like Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich have repeatedly praised Cooper. Eva Longoria showedup to help deliver food.

The bigger the stage, the bigger the sermon. I would feel guilty. And shame on me, if all I do is talk about a canned good.
Eric Cooper

Cooper also won the John Van Hengel award from Feeding America in April, a prestigious leadership industry award.

“The bigger the stage, the bigger the sermon. I would feel guilty. And shame on me, if all I do is talk about a canned good. I have to, I have to talk about the deep rooted issues that create the line that I feed” he said.

Who in the community responds and comes with him is something they will find out.

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Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org