Adam and Carmen Cantu were among the first to arrive at Harlandale Memorial Stadium early Saturday morning. Seven hours later, the line of cars stretched behind them for over two miles down Roosevelt Avenue south to Loop 410.
At 1 p.m., the Cantus drove their van past the Frank M. Tejeda Sports Complex and into a parking lot muddy from the previous week’s snowmelt. There, an army of volunteers loaded boxes of food, milk, and water into the back of the van.
“We wanted to make sure we got some groceries,” Carmen said. They needed the help in order to feed seven kids at home, she added, and so they could save money from an anticipated federal stimulus check to pay the electricity bill.
The food distribution was one of seven weekend events the San Antonio Food Bank is holding throughout the city, and part of a 10-day, $2.5 million campaign to provide food and water in the wake of a devastating winter storm and a yearlong pandemic.
More than 2,000 families were expected at the Harlandale site and 200,000 pounds of food had been trucked in. About a half-hour after the start, already 650 families had checked in. “The goal is never to turn people away,” said Kelsey Goldstein, philanthropy manager for the food bank.
On Friday, the food bank sought 500 volunteers to help with the weekend’s food distributions. At the Harlandale Stadium distribution, an estimated 450 people showed up to help – many of them students, teachers, coaches, and others from Harlandale ISD’s 23 schools.
Harlandale school board member Ricardo Moreno said the district partnered with the food bank to set up a food distribution at the stadium for the first time.
“I’m very fortunate. I wasn’t without electricity, so to me it’s about giving back,” Moreno said. “Everyone’s done that for us at some point. It’s good to pay it forward.”
He worked alongside other teachers, school staff, and Adams Elementary School Principal Julie Gimbel to hand out boxes of water, juice, sodas, and canned milk.
“There are a lot of families in our district that are in need of food and water, so this was an awesome thing that our district did,” Gimbel said. “So I called my staff … and we all just came out to help our community and our students.”
At the start of one of the seven distribution lanes across the parking lot, Harlandale social worker Jacqueline Smith directed traffic and greeted a district employee waiting in line for food.
“This is what I was born to do,” Smith said. “A lot of our families were already struggling as it is, dealing with COVID and not being able to get regular meals. A lot of these families don’t have transportation and with these winter storms we had, it’s been a double whammy.”
The event was an opportunity to see families she hasn’t seen in a long time due to the pandemic, Smith said. “We’re not able to knock on doors the way we used to, so this is a nice way to get back out and see everybody.”
Prior to the start of the pandemic, the food bank provided food for about 58,000 people a week across the city, according to the food bank’s Goldstein. Since March 2020, that number has increased to 125,000 a week.
Because some food pantries and partner agencies are no longer serving the community due to COVID-19 restrictions, the food bank is holding daily food distributions at its facility at 5200 Enrique M. Barrera Pkwy as well as the mega-mobile distribution events on Fridays.
But the past week’s severe weather prevented many residents from leaving their homes to reach the food bank or even grocery stores, Goldstein said. The distribution events are a way for them to get food to those people quickly.
The post-winter storm campaign that began Friday kicked off at three locations, including Rackspace headquarters on the Northeast Side. The event lasted until 7 p.m., two hours longer than planned due to the high volume of people who came, Goldstein said. The weeklong campaign will continue through Sunday, Feb. 28.
While at the event Saturday afternoon, District 3 Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran said that what the community will need next is relief from CPS Energy just as the San Antonio Water System has provided. “We need to get some sort of relief from CPS Energy on the bill,” she said.
In the meantime, any bit of help the food distribution provides is welcome, she said. “From the beginning of the week, everybody was [saying we have] ‘no power, no water, brutal, bitter cold temperatures overnight, needing help.’ Now I think with the sun shining, there’s a renewed hope.”
The food bank is requesting volunteers to sign up as well as monetary donations through its website, safoodbank.org, and by phone at 210-337-3663.
In addition to the food distributions, the City of San Antonio, Bexar County, and the San Antonio Food Bank are distributing cases of bottled water at sites throughout the city.