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Spike in food assistance needs easing in Waco area, though summer challenges ahead

Spike in food assistance needs easing in Waco area, though summer challenges ahead

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Waco-area organizations, groups and schools providing food for people in need are finding the high number of those seeking assistance over the last year starting to level off or drop, even as summer approaches with a seasonal upswing in demand.

For more than a year, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted jobs, schools, businesses, churches, family and social connections, causing record numbers of families and individuals turning out for food aid.

Some attribute the emerging decline in numbers to federal stimulus payments, a return to schools and a rebound in employment, but few expect a quick return to pre-pandemic levels of need.

Waco social services agency Caritas has seen a recent dip in the number of people coming for food stocks, co-Director Alicia Jallah said.

“We’ve seen a slight decline in the last couple of weeks, which we attribute to stimulus checks and tax season,” Jallah said. “People are more able to provide for themselves. However, our numbers are still high.”

The organization supplied food stocks for 3,528 families last month, 8,905 families and 1.5 million pounds of food since January. The March numbers may reflect an uptick in demand because of the February winter storm. Power outages may have damaged food in freezers and refrigerators for some, forcing unexpected replacement costs, while others found bills for plumbing repairs or soaring utility costs drained budgets at the expense of food purchases, she said.

This month, Caritas has provided food for slightly more than 100 families a day, a drop from the 175 to 200 families per day in preceding months.

While the agency has had sufficient food stocks to distribute, there is a current need for diapers in addition to a constant need for volunteers to help, Jallah said.

Efforts to contact Shepherd’s Heart Food Pantry, one of the busier food distribution centers in Waco, and Meals on Wheels, which delivers meals to homebound adults, were unsuccessful Friday, but both organizations reach thousands in the Waco area with food needs.

Demand at the weekly drive-up food distribution at Family of Faith Worship Center has tapered off to about 175 cars and trucks per week, down from an earlier average of 250 to 300, Pastor Ruben Andrade Jr. said. He said he thinks the impact of federal stimulus money, which some families used to pay bills and buy food, had helped lower demand, but he expects it would start to creep up this summer with schoolchildren at home and stimulus checks spent.

Turnout also is slackening for the monthly food distributions in Waco that the Central Texas Food Bank started early in the pandemic.

“We’re seeing some encouraging declines in our mass distributions month over month,” said Paul Gaither, spokesperson for the Central Texas Food Bank, which includes McLennan County in its 21-county coverage.

The bank not only helps supply local pantries including Caritas and Shepherd’s Heart, but holds regular drive-thru distributions in the larger cities in the area it covers. It provided boxes of food for 441 families in a distribution Thursday at Waco ISD Stadium, a slight drop from March’s 474 families. Frigid February weather that hit area families with power outages and burst water pipes caused a spike in food need with 581 Waco-area families receiving food boxes in February, up from 440 families in January.

Higher need and kinks in food distribution due to the pandemic caused shortfalls last year, forcing the bank to spend up to $1 million a month to buy food. Supply, however, has caught up, and the bank’s monthly food purchases now are at about $100,000, Gaither said.

In contrast with slowing demand at community food distributions, Paulanne’s Pantry at McLennan Community College is seeing a recent increase in student use. After a school year where COVID-19 protocols constrained campus activity, leading to a drop in pantry use, students are starting to return, said Tisha Monsey, associate director of MCC’s Completion Center. February saw 76 households use the pantry, compared to 106 in February last year, but monthly use now is approaching the pre-pandemic average of 90 to 100 households.

“I think the need continues,” Monsey said. “From talking to students, you know the need is still there.”

Baylor University’s pantry, The Store, saw use by 117 students last month, while another 1,093 turned out for the Baylor Free Farmers Market on March 25. The Store, incidentally, had record use during the February winter storm when many students were icebound and unable to go to local grocery stores for supplies. Its own supplies ran down, in fact, prompting a call for aid on The Store’s social media sites that resulted in delivery of about 100 boxes of microwavable meals, breakfast and protein bars, and drinks.

Pandemic shutdowns last summer complicated the feeding programs run by some school districts, but this summer likely will see a return closer to past operations. The Waco Independent School District will again hold its Summer Food Service Program that provides breakfast and lunch to children 18 or younger. Campus sites will serve breakfast and lunch from June 14 to Aug. 13, with plans for meals offered on Fridays for weekend use.

The program also will run community and mobile sites at several Waco locations, although details are still in the planning stages.

The Meals-to-You program addressing hunger among rural low-income children, a pilot project by the Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty that expanded to a national level, will return in Texas and two other states, Executive Director Jeremy Everett said. Expansion of federal programs aimed at increasing food access for low-income populations also will play a part in shrinking hunger in the months ahead, Everett said.

While recent weeks have seen indications that last year’s surge in need for food support may be leveling off or starting to recede, hunger program officials think it may take years before current food insufficiency levels return to what they were before the pandemic.

Central Texas Food Bank administrators do not see a quick end in sight.

“We’re looking at this elevated demand through the end of 2022,” Gaither said. “We’re reassessing our three-year strategic plan in the Austin metro area and outside it.

Everett said it took six to seven years after the 2008 recession for the country to recover to pre-recession food insufficiency levels. The national level of people without stable access to adequate food at that time peaked at 18%. A recent Urban Institute study found that rate had more than doubled from a baseline of 11% to spike last year at 23%, he said.

“It’s the highest on record in modern American history,” Everett said. “If we don’t take an integrated approach … we know it will probably take us another decade to dig out of the hole that we’re in.”

The cooperation shown between state and federal government, corporations and communities large and small to meet the immediate challenge of hunger during the pandemic, however, gives Everett a measure of hope, he said. Meals-to-You, a limited project that, with the help of the Department of Agriculture and corporate support, went nationwide to meet emergency need, is a prime example, he said.

“I’m feeling it won’t take us a full decade to get this under control, maybe as few as 18 months, if we continue this spirit of cooperation,” Everett said.

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