An army of volunteers stood under the hot sun Friday in the parking lots of the San Antonio Food Bank giving out lunches, fresh produce, groceries, and school supplies to families in a drive-thru food distribution event. 

Pre-registration showed at least 200 families had signed up for the event at the food bank, but that hardly tells the whole story of how the pandemic continues to affect San Antonio families financially. Food bank President and CEO Eric Cooper said volunteers had already distributed food to another 1,200 families at a separate food bank event earlier on Friday, just one of the many other off-site distribution events the food bank is doing every week right now.

There was a weariness in Cooper’s voice as he talked about watching the delta variant of COVID-19 surge in the San Antonio community, seeing the number of families in his food bank lines starting to increase, and how exhaustingly familiar it all felt. 

Eric Cooper, president and CEO of the San Antonio Foodbank.
Eric Cooper, president and CEO of the San Antonio Food Bank. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

He said the number of people coming to the food bank on a normal week before the pandemic was about 60,000. Early in 2020 as people lost their jobs, that number exploded to around 120,000 a week and stayed there until about a month ago, Cooper said, when the number gradually began to shrink to 90,000 a week. 

“But just this week we’re starting to see the line getting a little longer again,” Cooper said. “To be honest, it’s a little discouraging. It’s like this light at the end of the tunnel is the freight train.”

Cooper believes the uptick is driven by families dealing with the financial stress of getting ready for the school year and seniors worried about the contagious new variant, all of which is coinciding with the end to the eviction moratorium and the early cutoff of extra federal unemployment money in the state of Texas.

While many might think the holidays are the busy season for food banks, Cooper said the summer is typically much harder because kids are out of school and need a place to get breakfast and lunch. Summer is also often a tougher time financially for a lot of families, especially single-parent households, as they struggle to pay for extra childcare costs during the summer and higher utility bills.

Having H-E-B’s mobile kitchens come in and take over lunch distribution for a few of those summer days is a huge benefit for the food bank’s resources, Cooper said. Over the last five weeks the trucks have been serving hot meals to families at different locations throughout the city.

“We’ve been doing this summer feeding tour and we’re wrapping up today at the food bank,” said Julie Bedingfield, a spokeswoman for H-E-B. “We’re really excited to bring the mobile kitchens out to hopefully spread a little bit of joy or hope with a hot meal.”

Maribel, who didn’t want to give her last name, was among those in line at the food bank on Friday.

“The school supplies are a big help for us, because we have five kids going to school so they are reducing the expense for us,” she said.

Petra Maldonado and her three children were also in line, grateful for the school supplies. “I was not expecting the food, only the school supplies, but it’s a good help,” she said.

She said the pandemic had hit her family particularly hard, taking the life of her mother, an uncle, and other family members. She said her husband was a cook at a restaurant and had been out of work for a long time before the restaurant finally opened up again, but business is still slow and money is tight.

Both women expressed concern about sending their children back to school in person with COVID-19 cases rising and more children at risk of becoming infected. But Cooper pointed to the benefit to families of having children return to classrooms — and to school cafeterias.

“For us to see a reduced demand, kids need to be nourished in school,” he said. “That’s a good thing for their physical health and their mental health. If the variant impacts school attendance, kids will miss those meals and the burden stays here. 

“All those strategies that are working to get kids back into the classroom connect kids to the cafeteria. We’re just praying for the school districts and teachers and everyone. We’ll be here regardless if there’s a need.”

H-E-B is a financial supporter of the San Antonio Report. For a full list of business members, click here.

Jennifer Norris has been working in journalism since 2005. She's a native Texan, but a new San Antonian who is excited to get to know the city.