A long line of hundreds of vehicles stretched into the distance along Enrique Barrera Parkway on Thursday afternoon as families participated in the weekday food distribution at the San Antonio Food Bank on the city’s West Side.

I visited the 40-acre campus that day to get a firsthand look at new construction that will enable the food bank’s 250 employees and 1,000 weekly volunteers to keep up with the alarming growth in food insecurity that has swept through San Antonio and the 16 counties in the nonprofit’s service area.

More than 120,000 people are receiving weekly assistance these days, more than double the number of clients served before the pandemic. In total, 625,000 people have received food bank assistance since March, equal to one in four people that live in the region.

The food bank does more than hand out food packages to families and seniors in need. Its programs extend to counseling, nutrition education, healthy food preparation, and even affordable housing. Its campus features aquaponic gardens, food plots, goats and other animals used in student education programs, rain harvesting tanks, and many acres of farmed greens and vegetables. Fresh produce is the food bank’s leading category of supplemental food aid, some of it grown right on the campus’s farm.

San Antonio Food Bank's campus features aquaponic gardens, food plots, goats and other animals used in student education programs, rain harvesting tanks, and many acres of farmed greens and vegetables.
San Antonio Food Bank’s campus features aquaponic gardens, food plots, goats and other animals used in student education programs, rain harvesting tanks, and many acres of farmed greens and vegetables. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

As the holiday season – a time of particular need – approaches, the food bank issued a public call last week for more volunteers to meet the December spike.

Many readers no doubt are familiar with the food bank’s popup distribution events that have attracted thousands to the Alamodome and other venues. The demand continues to grow at the afternoon food distributions that occur at the campus each Tuesday through Friday and that I witnessed Thursday. Volunteers are needed for the 1:30 p.m.-4 p.m. shift.

“All our operations are COVID-safe,” Mary de Marigny, the food bank’s director of development, noted as we met in the lobby, where masked volunteers were checking in, getting their temperatures checked, sanitizing their hands, and preparing for the day’s work. It was heartening to see people of all ages and backgrounds present, a very San Antonio scene.

Want to volunteer? Click here to see the food bank’s volunteer calendar and events.

I was there to tour the under-construction Culinary Center set to be completed in April. The massive steel-beamed structure will include a large commercial kitchen, where workers will have the capacity to prepare 50,000 meals a day. The Mays Family Foundation has provided the lead gift and will see its name on the building. The Najim Charitable Foundation, its name already on the adjacent Najim Children’s Pavilion, has made an additional naming gift for the kitchen.

My attention was drawn to a state-of-the-art game processing plant that will be contained within the culinary center. Last year local ranchers and hunters participating in the Hunters for the Hungry program contributed 180,000 pounds of processed ground venison to the food bank for distribution. That’s an estimated 6,000 whitetail deer, but food bank leaders say it is not enough to meet needs. They are inviting more ranchers and hunters to participate in the program. A mobile refrigerated unit operated by the food bank goes out to area ranches where wholesale harvesting is possible.

A rendering of San Antonio Food Bank's under-construction Culinary Center set to be completed in April.
A rendering of San Antonio Food Bank’s under-construction Culinary Center set to be completed in April. Credit: Courtesy / RVK Architects

Currently, a network of participating commercial processors located throughout the food bank’s multicounty service area accepts tagged and field-dressed animals for processing. There is no drop-off fee, and the food bank pays a reduced price. Once the culinary center opens, the food bank will operate its own processing plant and use the facility to train butchers for future local employment.

Not everyone hunts, of course, and food bank CEO Eric Cooper would be the first to say it’s easier to process a check, however large or small, than wildlife, and that every dollar given provides for seven meals. Click here to donate.

Cooper is one of San Antonio’s highest-profile nonprofit leaders and one of the most respected in the national Feeding America network of food banks. He happened to be at the New Braunfels Food Bank, which his team established in 2010 as The Kitchen Table, the day I visited the San Antonio campus. When Cooper was first hired in 2001, the food bank operated with 16 employees, four aging vehicles, and a budget of about $1 million. This year alone more than $25 million in food has been distributed, and the enterprise continues to grow. While the popup distribution events attract the most media attention, most of the food bank’s food and prepared meal distribution is done through 530 local and regional nonprofits.

Public health officials are predicting that the spike in COVID-19 happening here and throughout the country will grow even worse in the coming months in advance of widespread vaccination later next year. Until then, Cooper and his team will be turning to the people in San Antonio who do not experience hunger or food insecurity and asking them to help meet pandemic-level needs.

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.