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Photo by Central Texas Food Bank

Austin families navigate food insecurity inflicted by Covid-19

Monday, October 5, 2020 by Alyssa Weinstein

Jacylin Moya and her mom woke up early Saturday morning to do something they had never done before – go to a Central Texas Food Bank drive. With a line of cars ahead of them, they waited in their car until 8 a.m., when it was time to drive up and collect their box of food.

The pandemic unleashed an overwhelming number of pitfalls for families to navigate through, and unemployment and food insecurity have hit home for thousands of them. In August alone, the Central Texas Food Bank served 112,000 households across its 21-county service area, which translates to more than 350,000 individuals, said Paul Gaither, spokesperson for the food bank. Of those households, more than 18,000 used CTFB services for the first time, about 16 percent of the total.

Along with food stamps (SNAP), local resources like CTFB and UT Austin’s food bank, UT Outpost, have also seen an uptick in clients since the pandemic hit Austin.

“Once the Travis County Covid-19 stay-at-home order hit, we had to shift our model quickly and we knew food insecurity doesn’t care about a pandemic,” said Will Ross, UT Outpost coordinator. “If anything, (the pandemic) amplifies that need.”

For Moya and her family, who are members of the local Puerto Rican and Mexican community, unemployment has been the driving cause of their food insecurity. Moya said they intend to share their food box with other family members who were unable to come to the food drive due to work conflicts or lack of transportation.

Moya and her mother tried exploring other resources, like food stamps or Meals on Wheels. However, they either received nearly worthless benefits or were turned away due to eligibility requirements.

“Particularly now because of the pandemic, we see the driving force for Austin food insecurity being that people are out of work or their hours were reduced,” Gaither said.

Before the pandemic, about two-thirds of CTFB clients were employed. Gaither said many were part of the “working poor,” in that they had a job yet did not make enough to put food on the table.

More than 70,000 workers in the Austin metro area were unemployed in August, double the number a year earlier, according to Texas Workforce Commission data. And while metro-area employers added almost 20,000 jobs in August, local payrolls remained almost 30,000 jobs below August 2019 levels – a decline of 2.7 percent in a region that had regularly posted 3 and 4 percent increases.

Gaither said before Covid-19, CTFB served about 46,000 clients a week, or 184,000 per month. On average, he said that monthly number has doubled since the pandemic began.

According to a Feeding America report from May, areas in the U.S. that already had high rates of food insecurity will continue to have the highest rates in the country as the pandemic drags on. The state with the highest 2020 food insecurity projections for the overall population due to Covid-19 is California, with a total of 6.4 million people. For children, the state with the highest projection is Texas, with 2.3 million food-insecure children.

While Covid-19 may have exacerbated the food insecurity issue in Austin and nationally, CTFB has been able to accommodate all of its clients so far.

“The biggest (change) was basically reinventing the way we do business,” Gaither said. “There have been interruptions in the supply chain due to shortages of certain items because the whole country is competing for the same resources.”

This left the food bank no choice but to buy its own supply and seek more monetary donations to make up for the large decline in food donations, Gaither said.

“Our top priority remains ensuring eligible Texans and their families have access to healthy, nutritious foods as well as the systems that support them,” said Elliott Sprehe, press officer for the Texas Health & Human Services Commission, in a statement. To accomplish this, Sprehe said the commission has made SNAP benefits more accessible by making the eligibility determination process easier.

However, for families in disproportionately affected communities of Austin, such as the Black or Latino populations, using SNAP and other resources may be near impossible due to lack of transportation or internet access, as KUT reported back in April. Families with an undocumented member may even be fearful to pursue these resources. And meals that require pickup, especially for families seeking school lunches during the pandemic, can present a problem rather than a solution for some.

“The city is way behind the times in being culturally responsive to its diverse constituents,” said Angela Valenzuela, a professor in the Department of Educational Leadership at UT Austin. Valenzuela noted that the city doesn’t always provide resources in Spanish, while other resources may require internet or computer access.

The food insecurity dilemma caught Austin Mayor Steve Adler’s eye and he has begun to look for ways to resolve it.

“We got a certain amount of resources from the federal government that does not come close to meeting the need that the community has,” Adler said. “There are no good choices here. … Every choice is a bad one for the individuals you’re leaving out.”

One step the city took was to offer food and housing assistance to everyone in the community during the pandemic, without asking for a Social Security number, Adler said. And for now, CTFB is a resource that is accessible to most households with few limitations.

“The bank and our staff and our volunteers do everything we can to make people feel extremely comfortable with the situation. And we actually thank them for coming out and getting food from us,” Gaither said. “We try to do everything we can to eliminate that stigma that some people might have. Because there’s no shame in this situation … if you need help, you should get help.”

With the pandemic still far from over, Moya and her family understand there are others who are in even greater need than they are. “My mom taught me to not be greedy and only get what you need when you’re in need,” Moya said. “So that’s why we feel OK coming today, because we’re in need.”

This story was written by a journalism student at the University of Texas at Austin. The Austin Monitor is working in partnership with the UT School of Journalism to teach and publish stories produced by students in the City and County Government Reporting course.

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