Longer lines at local food distributions and new faces among familiar ones are visible signs of how the COVID-19 pandemic is worsening the usually invisible problem of hunger.
For Bob Gager, executive director of Shepherd’s Heart Food Pantry, recent weeks have seen more than 500 families show up for the pantry’s regular distribution of food, with 4,232 served last month, double what the pantry had been doing in March before the local lockdown for COVID-19 stopped schools and jobs for many. That is in addition to about 700 senior or disabled adults the ministry serves with home deliveries, increasing the strain on its volunteers.
Meals delivered to needy senior adults in the three-county area Meals on Wheels serves has increased almost 30%, and federal emergency support is about to expire, said Debbie King, executive director of Meals on Wheels Waco.
Family of Faith Worship Center hosts one of Waco’s busier food distribution sites and has seen turnout increase from some 800 families a week to about 1,000. Pastor Ruben Andrade Jr. said food supplies has been sufficient and the demand somewhat stabilizing, but COVID-19 concerns sliced his volunteer base almost in half, to about a dozen people.
“We’ve been able to meet the demand, but it’s been difficult,” Andrade said.
At Waco social service agency Caritas, the numbers are down from the early months of the pandemic, but still higher than before, co-Director Alicia Jallah. Caritas is providing food for some 200 to 220 families and 30 homeless individuals a day, down from late spring, when about 300 families a day needed food, with 150 new families added each month.
The Central Texas Food Bank, which covers a 21-county area including McLennan County, supplies several of Waco’s food pantries. It saw demand almost double starting in April, with between 42,000 and 45,000 people served that month, compared to an average of 21,000 to 23,000 in the preceding months, food bank spokesperson Paul Gaither said.
The COVID-19 lockdowns across the state disrupted the food supply chain that normally provides food and other goods donated by companies such as H-E-B, Randall’s, Walmart, Sam’s and Costco, forcing the regional bank to spend considerably more to buy food to fill the gap. While the supply chain now is stabilized, the need on the receiving end is settling to a higher than usual norm.
“That’s a big thing,” Gaither said. “We anticipate that will continue for some time, even with a vaccine.”
It may get worse. Some summer feeding programs will return to school campuses when classes begin in the upcoming weeks, but with fall comes the prospect of extended unemployment and more evictions from homes and apartments. Two-thirds of the clients the regional food bank serves are employed, but their wages fall short of meeting their families’ needs,” he said.
Both Andrade and Jolla said they are seeing an increase in request for financial help with rent and summer utility bills.
The Downtown Waco Farmers Market is seeing a spillover of need for food assistance in recent months. The number of customers using SNAP benefits, known as food stamps, has grown from three or four per week to about 20, out of the market’s 2,500 to 3,000 weekly visitors, director Bethel Ericksen-Bruce said.
Not only does the market work to stretch their food dollars for fresh vegetables and meat, but it provides an outdoor location that helps minimize possible COVID-19 spread and offers a measure of personal contact during a time of social distancing, Ericksen-Bruce said.
“It’s refreshing to me,” she said. “We’re operating as an essential farmers market should.”
COVID-19 has affected Meals on Wheels in multiple ways since March, King said. Because senior adults are a vulnerable target for the disease, many are avoiding shopping or eating out, preferring to stay in their homes. Senior adult centers where many would eat meals on a regular basis are closed, and drivers who frequently chatted and visited with seniors while delivering their meals, an important social connection for many, no longer can because of COVID-19 protection protocols.
All of that has added to the need.
“When the governor shut the state down, our phone went off the hook,” King said.
The agency’s wait list grew to 65 people in March, and since then, some 200 people have been added to Meals on Wheels’ deliveries. Last month, Meals on Wheels distributed 20,242 meals, up from 10,679 as of February.
In the face of a growing food insecurity for many seniors, the federal assistance a series of relief measures is coming to an end without a congressional extension.
“Without the federal funding, I don’t think we can keep up,” King said. “Giving us food is not helpful. We need the funds.”
After the months of scrambling to meet immediate distribution and volunteer needs, there also needs to be a focus on the long-term situation, said Craig Nash, regional manager for child hunger outreach for Baylor University’s Texas Hunger Initiative.
“Just as (COVID-19) deaths lag behind the other indicators, it’s similar with food insecurity,” Nash said. “It lags behind economic indicators, but it lasts longer.”
For example, some studies showed it took up to six years for some families to recover food security after the 2008 recession, he said.
“One of the strengths of our society is that we respond to emergencies pretty well,” Nash said. “What we don’t do as well is when the emergency goes underground.”
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