The novel coronavirus shows no signs of going away, and neither are the needs its havoc has caused. Since the pandemic struck in March, the San Antonio Food Bank has doubled the number of families it serves from 60,000 per week to 120,000 per week. Meals on Wheels San Antonio (MOWSA) has added 1,000 new clients, mostly elderly, to its list of twice-weekly food deliveries.

One side effect of the recent spike in COVID-19 cases is that both organizations have seen their volunteer forces dwindle and urgently need to fill those spots to distribute food to needy San Antonians.

“Operating at a 100 percent increase in demand … needs a lot of labor,” said Eric Cooper, CEO of the Food Bank, which is seeking an additional 300 volunteers per week for its 20 weekly mobile and large-scale food distributions in Bexar County and surrounding counties.

Meals on Wheels needs 100 volunteers per day to keep up with demand, up from its current average of 30 per day, to serve more than 4,500 clients per week, up from an average of 3,200 before the pandemic descended.

Working against these goals is what both leaders see as rising fear amidst the COVID-19 spike. “People are afraid and, and we get that,” Cooper said.

Caution, Need See Simultaneous Spikes

In an announcement Monday, Cooper stated that people are “rightfully cautious about getting out at the moment,” but warned that food distributions would have to be cut or scaled back if volunteer targets are not met. Already burgeoning lines of more than 2,000 vehicles per mega-distribution would slow operations for needy families.

Both organizations have filled empty volunteer spots with staff as needed, but need volunteers to help fulfill their distributions. Another source of help has been a new organization, Get Shift Done, that puts laid off and unemployed hospitality workers back to work. It pays them $13 per hour to help food organizations assemble and distribute food.

Anyone interested in helping the Food Bank with its regional distributions or Friday mega-distributions can register here for a brief orientation before heading out to distribution sites. Masks must be worn at all times, hand sanitizer is made available, and gloves will be provided for each volunteer.

Vinsen Faris, CEO of Meals on Wheels San Antonio, said all volunteers need is a car with current insurance, and masks and hand sanitizer can be provided. Each volunteer chooses a neighborhood, then picks up food from the MOWSA headquarters and is given a sheet with addresses. Most delivery shifts can be completed in an hour, he said. Anyone interested may register on the MOWSA website.

Faris encouraged volunteers to come in pairs if they can find a partner, or bring their kids, to keep them company during deliveries, which makes the already efficient routes go fast, he said.

No End in Sight

One complication both leaders cited is a reduction in corporate volunteers, because corporations have asked employees to reduce volunteerism in order to avoid potential spread of the coronavirus.

“Our corporate partners for the most part haven’t been able to step back and help us,” Faris said, and the recent spike has only complicated matters, just as unemployment numbers surge and alarming infection rates have convinced more people to stay home when possible.

Pandemic safety protocols have changed the way Meals on Wheels serves its clientele, he said, with the organization unable to deliver its “secret sauce” of social interaction along with food. Instead of crossing the threshold into the homes of sometimes lonely clients, volunteers now hang a bag of chilled meals on the doorknob, step back to a six-foot distance, exchange greetings with the client and move along.

Cooper said volunteers and staff must wear masks at all times during food distributions, and are encouraged to maintain appropriate distance whenever possible. Food is generally placed in the trunks or back seats of cars, so little personal contact occurs. He said several different volunteer opportunities exist, including work in the main kitchen, at the Food Bank farm and garden, the supply warehouse, and at any of the distribution sites throughout the 16 counties it serves.

Hundreds of vehicles line up on Loop 410 as they await entry into Trader’s Village during a San Antonio Food Bank dIstribution in April. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Cooper called anyone healthy who is willing to help “heroes” and put the need in stark terms.

“We continue to see a tremendous need for families struggling for food,” he said. “For those individuals that can take that risk and work with us, … we’ll work to keep them as safe as possible.”

Of increasing hunger locally, Cooper said, “It’s weighing on us, because there’s no end in sight. There’s a lot of need, and the Food Bank sure needs volunteers to fulfill its mission.”

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...