Rows of volunteers dressed in Christmas attire and jackets lined the parking lot of the Alamodome on Tuesday morning, separating ripe and unripe bananas, sorting bell peppers into paper bags, and moving around wooden pallets of bread and milk.
Standing under pop-up tents in small groups of two or three, the volunteers chatted and laughed as they waited for the 9 a.m. start time to begin passing out food to San Antonians waiting in lines of cars. “Santa Baby” and other Christmas songs played on a radio nearby, keeping the mood light and happy.
Standing next to a man in a Santa suit, Eric Cooper prepared to begin passing out fruit, vegetables, sausage, and briskets alongside his 24-year-old son, Morgan, and other volunteers.
As he waited, Cooper, the San Antonio Food Bank president and CEO, took a moment to reflect on the past 12 months – nine of which have been the food bank’s busiest ever.
“The food bank has been filling gaps and plugging holes created by COVID-19 since March,” Cooper said. “We’ve been doing these types of events since even before COVID, but it was at the onset of the pandemic that it went from serving 200 families to 2,000.”
The food bank served about 2,300 families Tuesday, with Mayor Ron Nirenberg pitching in to help distribute groceries.
Wearing a black hoodie bearing the word “fuerte” (Spanish for “strong”) on the front, Nirenberg chatted with volunteers as he waited to pass out briskets.
“It’s been a challenging year,” Nirenberg said. “What we’ve seen, though, is that when it comes down to it, the San Antonio community stands together.”
Nirenberg said he wanted to come to the food bank’s last major distribution event of the year both to support the community and because helping volunteer was an important part of the holiday spirit.
Tuesday’s distribution event was sponsored by Community First Health Plans and also marked the debut of Kiolbassa Smoked Meats’ “Links of Love” program.
Three generations of Kiolbassa family members helped distribute sausages at the event, alongside employees from the RK Group who had donated briskets.
Through the Links of Love program, Kiolbassa will donate 10,000 pounds of sausage per month to Feeding America, a network of 200 food banks and 60,000 food pantries and meal programs that includes the San Antonio Food Bank, said Wendy Stiles, the company’s director of community enrichment.
“We may be serving people on what could be the most difficult day of their lives. We hope that the food we are providing gives them a little happiness, encouragement, and hope,” said Michael Kiolbassa, president of Kiolbassa Smoked Meats.
For the past six months, the food bank has been distributing food at the Alamodome every two weeks. Each event has included people seeking food relief for the first time, showing how difficult this year has been on families, Cooper said.
“Even this one today has some first-timers,” Cooper said. “It surprises me this far into the pandemic we’re still meeting so many new families.”
While the food bank has provided food to approximately 625,000 individuals over the past nine months, Cooper said he estimates there are about 900,000 people facing with food insecurity in the food bank’s 16-county service area out of the 2.5 million population.
Going into 2021, Cooper said he and his staff expect the area’s need to remain high for a while. While the distribution of the coronavirus vaccine and the recently approved federal stimulus deal bring hope to the horizon, it will still take a while for the economy to bounce back, he said.
“We’re not planning on the line shortening for some time,” Cooper said. “We’ll be monitoring things as the economy stabilizes.”
The food bank will continue to have mega mobile distribution events throughout 2021 and has been working with the Alamodome to plan accordingly, Cooper said.
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