Like other shopping centers, PicaPica Plaza shut its doors when the coronavirus pushed elected officials into issuing stay-at-home orders. The usually bustling indoor market has lain quiet for weeks, but plaza owners found a new way to activate its empty parking lot.

On Friday, volunteers handed out grocery store gift cards and a few weeks’ worth of produce to people lined up in their cars. The process was swift and easy, said Al Honigblum, one of the owners of PicaPica Plaza.

Honigblum worked with the San Antonio Food Bank to figure out how best he could help with food donation and distribution efforts, he said. He and the other owners of PicaPica Plaza formed Lots of Love, an initiative created around the idea of using empty parking lots for another purpose. Lots of Love also aims to raise $1 million to feed community members, Honigblum said.

“There were many landowners, developers, business owners who approached [Food Bank president and CEO Eric Cooper] to offer their buildings or fields for pop-ups,” Honigblum said. “But nobody came to him with what we did. … We’re going to raise our own money. We’re going to help procure the food. We’re going to provide the sites. We’re going to use our tenants and employees as volunteers. The only thing we need from you is a reputable 501(c)3 corporation that people feel comfortable with, and to teach us how to distribute food because we’ve never done it before.”

David Lake is the co-founder of Lake Flato Architects, one of Lots of Love’s major donors. Lake said he and Honigblum decided they wanted to help with other essential needs and began buying $100 gift cards from H-E-B to distribute along with food packages. The gift cards help families with non-food purchases such as diapers, Lake said.

Honigblum is one of the many San Antonians who have mobilized to bring food to others during the coronavirus pandemic. Cooper said he was impressed with how much Honigblum wanted to help the food bank operate most efficiently.

PicaPica Plaza owner Al Honigblum. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

“There’s something I remember as I started my career in nonprofits, there was a little bit of a credo – like the physician’s creed, do no harm,” Cooper said. “If you think of an idea that could help someone, before you just launch it, check and see in the community to see if anyone is doing something similar to that.”

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Cooper estimated the food bank fed around 60,000 people a week. That has risen to 120,000 people per week, doubling the amount of money and food needed each week. Every week, the food bank needs about $6 million in food and money to serve Bexar County and the 15 surrounding counties.

San Antonio is still responding to the coronavirus disaster, Cooper said, but the food bank must still plan ahead and stay financially ready for the recovery phase.

“The duration of recovery for most disasters is long,” he said. “It’s that rebuilding stage, climbing out of debt, getting back to baseline that we were all once at. I don’t know how long the recovery will be. I worry the post-COVID environment could create the right-sizing of businesses and those efficiencies might generate even more job loss. Then ultimately, it’s about meaningful employment if I’m going to be successful in shortening my line or getting people out of a parking lot and into a grocery store.”

Feeding those on the front line

While the food bank handles much of San Antonio’s food-insecure population, other people have zeroed in on keeping health care and other essential workers fed.

Tim McDiarmid, the chef behind the Southtown restaurant The Good Kind and catering company Tim the Girl, started an initiative called Be the Good Kind a few weeks ago. 

McDiarmid said she and other small business owners who worked around the clock before the pandemic were faced with the question: what’s next?

“In the midst of panicking and writing grants and loans and trying to decide whether we would still have businesses, I had been wanting to start a nonprofit side for a while,” McDiarmid said.

Chef Tim McDiarmid.
Chef Tim McDiarmid. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

She and nine other business owners decided to band together for Be the Good Kind, an organization that raises money to feed hospital workers free meals. The business model is simple: Buy a gift card from any of the participating businesses listed here, and 15 percent of that purchase goes toward purchasing food to donate.

So far, Be the Good Kind has delivered hundreds of meals to University Hospital workers, but McDiarmid said she’s working with other hospitals, shelters, and nonprofits that ask for food donations. McDiarmid, Kara Kroeger of Foundation Culinary, and Heather Larican of Your Sassy Chef have been preparing all the meals; the three women cook in The Good Kind’s kitchen, forming a small assembly line of food preparation.

A national organization has brought its effort to San Antonio to feed hospital workers as well. Frontline Foods formed about 10 weeks ago in response to COVID-19, local chapter leader Paul Chaveriat said, while the San Antonio chapter launched about two weeks ago.

“Our mission kind of splits,” Chaveriat said. “We’re not just providing food, but also trying to provide a boost to the local economy and paying restaurants for a fair price. We’re not asking restaurants to donate their time or food. We believe there is a virtuous cycle we have to work to create. … In particular, we’re giving money to keep people employed. That helps keep payroll moving and the lights on.”

Frontline Foods delivered its first round of meals to University Hospital on Friday night, Chaveriat said. Those 100 meals were cooked and provided by Los Barrios Family Restaurants and consisted of enchiladas, chips and salsa, and tortillas. Going forward, Frontline Foods hopes to partner with other local restaurants to keep feeding first responders, Chaveriat said.

Frontline Foods San Antonio hopes to raise $500,000 to buy meals from local restaurants to donate to hospital workers, Chaveriat said. People interested in donating to Frontline Foods in San Antonio can do so here.

The national Frontline Foods organization has already served more than 300,000 meals, while other local chapters have served tens of thousands of meals, Chaveriat said. 

“It’s quite a steep trajectory that we’re climbing, and we’re hoping to mirror what’s been done in other cities,” he said.

Be the Good Kind and Frontline Foods are teaming up to celebrate National Nurse Appreciation Week, Chaveriat said. Be the Good Kind will provide Frontline Foods’ next round of meal deliveries on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Lots of Love has already raised more than $450,000, Honigblum said, while the next $250,000 raised will be matched by an anonymous donor.

PicaPica Plaza will host two more food distributions – one on Tuesday and one on Thursday, Honigblum said. He anticipates the market will reopen for in-person shoppers, but the market always closes on Monday, so they can continue to use the parking lot for food distribution then.

Bags of produce and H-E-B gift cards are handed out during the San Antonio Food Bank Lots of Love event at Pica Pica Plaza. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Lots of Love will continue to fundraise for the food bank, and the money is not limited for exclusive use in the South Side, Cooper said. But he’s also been impressed with how many other area residents have stepped up to help feed others in the community.

“I think there are hundreds of [Al Honigblums] that have come forward in this COVID-19 crisis,” Cooper said.

Not only have corporations donated, but an 11-year-old neighbor of Cooper’s used his free time to raise $1,000 for the food bank, he said.

“We’ve had college students that received their $1,200 stimulus check and donated the entire amount to the food bank,” Cooper said. “It’s overwhelming me with a feeling of humility and gratitude.”

People interested in donating to Lots of Love can do so here. Donate to the San Antonio Food Bank here. Money raised from either link will go toward the food bank.

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.