Photo by Michael Minasi/KUT
Friday, December 18, 2020 by Marisa Charpentier

Thousands of Central Texans are facing hunger because of the pandemic. The need isn’t going away any time soon.

Hundreds of cars trailed out of Navarro Early College High School’s parking lot on Monday morning, as families lined up to receive boxes of food – gallons of milk, bags of potatoes, packs of meat. Like many organizations that operate food pantries, the nonprofit Austin Voices for Education and Youth switched to a drive-thru model during Covid-19. And with many people out of work because of the pandemic, the organization has seen demand skyrocket.

“I’m here today because we need the food,” Gladys, a single mom, told KUT while she was waiting in line. (KUT is using first names only for food pantry clients to protect their privacy.)

When the pandemic hit, she lost her job at a warehouse. Schools closed, so she no longer had the daily support she relied on for her son, who has autism.

“Therapies and everything got off schedule,” she said. “It’s hard dealing with a special needs kid on your own. It really is.”

She was in nursing school, but soon found she could no longer juggle classes while taking care of her son, so she dropped out. Without a steady income and a school to supply her son with food every day, she turned to food distributions like this one.

In a normal year, Austin Voices operates a walk-through food pantry that sees about 80 people a week. These drive-thru distributions now see hundreds per week. Between 10:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. on Monday, Austin Voices distributed 21,000 pounds of food to 500 households.

In November, the Central Texas Food Bank, which provides food to distributions like Austin Voices’, saw a record-breaking month in terms of demand, serving 383,000 individuals. December is traditionally one of the busiest months for food pantries, and as Covid-19 cases spike around the holidays, the Central Texas Food Bank says it expects the need for food will only increase. The food bank and the food pantries it supports worry about keeping up with demand long-term.

“This is not going away any time soon, just because we have a vaccine,” said Derrick Chubbs, the food bank’s president and CEO. “Our data and our consultants … are telling us that we are to expect these elevated levels throughout 2021, well into 2022 and then – a possible worst-case scenario – maybe into 2023.”

The Central Texas Food Bank has been spending millions more dollars and distributing millions more pounds of food this year than normal.

Chubbs estimates the food bank is still 30 percent short of meeting demand in its 21-county service area.

“We know that there are people who fall through the cracks,” he said. “We know that there are areas where we would like to be able to do more, but we don’t necessarily have the logistical capacity to be able to do that.”

‘It Is Very Difficult Right Now’

Hunger in Central Texas is nothing new. Before the pandemic, the food bank estimated that about 400,000 people in its service area faced hunger, or about 1 in 7 residents.

Now, as the pandemic has forced business closures and led to lost wages, many are turning to food distributions for the first time. The food bank estimates 560,000 Central Texans face hunger, or 1 in 5. The situation is more acute for children; about 1 in 3.5 children in the area are at risk of hunger.

Lost wages is a common theme among many of the clients coming to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s weekly food distribution in North Austin, says Executive Director Roz Gutierrez.

“Not everybody that’s here is unemployed, but so many people have reduced hours,” Gutierrez said. “They’re having to make choices between, are they going to pay the light bill or are they going to have food on the table?”

The organization hosts a walk-up food distribution every Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon. Since April, it has seen demand double, going from serving about 150 people a week to 300.

So far, the organization hasn’t had to turn anyone away. It receives the bulk of its food from donors and the Central Texas Food Bank.

“There’s been a lot of food pantries that have closed because of the pandemic, and so the food bank has been siphoning a lot of food to us because we’re still open, and we have such a large crowd that comes in,” said Michael Tullius, who coordinates the St. Vincent de Paul food pantry.

Cecilia was standing in line with her 4-month-old baby this past Saturday. She told KUT she was already in a moment of crisis when the pandemic hit. Originally from Honduras, Cecilia said she and her three children were kidnapped in Mexico, and she was abused. They made it to Austin about five months ago, she said, but they didn’t have any clothes or resources with them. She struggled to find places where she could access necessities.

“I was told that in some places clothes were provided,” she said in Spanish. “But because of the pandemic, many places have canceled everything.”

Cecilia said the Society of St. Vincent de Paul has been a big help.

“This is a place where they provide us with food, which helps us a lot at home, and even more because of the pandemic, and even more if we have children,” she said. “It was the first place where I was provided with food.”

Cecilia doesn’t have a full-time job right now, but she’s been selling food and going with a friend to clean houses.

“It is very difficult right now, even more so with children,” she said.

Another woman in line, Cathy, said she’s been coming to St. Vincent de Paul for clothes and resources for a couple of years now. A full-time culinary and hospitality student at Austin Community College, she said she’s been receiving unemployment benefits and using food stamps. But when one of her checks increased because of the pandemic, the food stamps were cut off.

“Now I don’t get but $400 every two weeks, and that’s not even enough to hardly pay my rent, so I come here every week,” she said. “If it wasn’t for this place, I would have no food.”

Cathy said she stretches out the food she receives as far as she can, cooking meals for herself and the other women she lives with in a nearby sober-living community.

“I try to cook for everybody when I cook,” she said. “A couple of the ladies that were working full-time jobs, they’re having a hard time right now because they’re not getting to work as much.”

A Trend in Demand

Local food pantries say they’ve seen spikes in the need for food align with spikes in Covid-19 cases. A recent study from University of Texas Dell Medical School also confirmed this trend. Researchers surveyed 645 families who sought care at CommUnityCare clinics in the Austin area between April and August. Fluctuations in rates of food insecurity corresponded with fluctuations in Covid-19 rates and hospitalizations.

For example, 70 percent of families surveyed in July – when Covid-19 cases reached their highest levels in Travis County – said they didn’t have enough food or were worried about running out of food.

“We found that the two curves almost exactly mirrored each other for Covid-19 rates and then food insecurity locally,” said Megan Gray, an assistant professor in pediatrics and population health.

Gray said there could be a number of reasons for this correlation. Patients themselves were out of work because they were either getting sick with Covid-19 or having to quarantine after coming in contact with someone who tested positive. Or, workplaces were shutting down because of high rates.

Though the study didn’t ask about citizenship status, Gray said many CommUnityCare clinic patients are undocumented. The study saw the highest frequency of food insecurity among Hispanic and Spanish-speaking families.

“So we are also concerned that the most vulnerable in our society might not be able to access government-funded benefits or have more fear of accessing government-funded benefits,” she said.

Chubbs said the Central Texas Food Bank has also seen a correlation between spikes in cases and the need for food.

“During the summer, after the initial stimulus that went out, we saw our numbers level off just a bit and even at a certain point start to decline, but then around mid-July, they started to rise again,” he said. “In August they were comparable, but then in September they started to rise again.”

Covid-19 cases are rising in Travis County and across the state – a trend that’s likely to continue.

“We’re going into Christmas, so we expect the spike to last for another couple of months, and we’re expecting the need to correspond right along with that,” Chubbs said.

Keeping Up With the Need

The increased level of demand has pushed the food bank to make adjustments. In addition to operating its normal mobile food pantries (about 60 a month), it’s made a substantial addition: hosting eight to 10 mass drive-thru distributions a month at large parking lots, like Nelson Field or the Toney Burger Center. Each one is likely to see well over 1,000 cars, Chubbs said.

Lines of cars queue up in April for Central Texas Food Bank’s mass food distribution at the Toney Burger Center. (Gabriel C. Pérez)

“Other food banks across the state may do one a month, which is why you see 10,000 cars,” he said. “But we are trying to do it as frequently as we can so we can consistently keep food on the table for those individuals.”

Another hurdle for the food bank has been the increasing cost of food. Pre-Covid, the food bank would spend $100,000 a month buying food, Chubbs said. Now, it spends $1 million a month, a result of the increased volume of people in need and the fact that the cost of food and the cost to transport it have gone up.

“We’re literally spending 10 (times the normal amount), which is why our primary ask is if you want to help our food bank, a financial donation is best,” he said.

Food banks are worried about a food shortage in the coming year as state and federal programs they rely on come to an end. Chubbs said the Central Texas Food Bank received twice the amount of food it normally gets from the U.S. Department of Agriculture this year and that aid needs to continue or at least go down slowly.

“We don’t want that to be episodic,” Chubbs said. “Even if they’re returning, we need them to return back to the pre-Covid levels at a slow pace, not just flip the switch. … We need them to support us and realize this is a marathon. This is not a sprint.”

Gutierrez, with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, is also worried about being able to have enough money to support families, especially as eviction moratoriums come to an end.

“There is so much politicking going on right now, it’s very frustrating to us,” she said. “We see people getting tied up in red tape, that have blockades and obstacles that shouldn’t be there, and really, people are not trying to take advantage. … People are just trying to survive.”

Top photo caption: Mark Steves, a volunteer with Austin Voices for Education and Youth, loads groceries into a vehicle during a drive-thru food distribution at Navarro Early College High School on Monday.

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT.

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