Military veteran and taxi driver Robert Gonzales had already been struggling with a downturn in business, largely due to the rising market share of ride-hailing services Uber and Lyft. With the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic, Gonzales found himself in line with an estimated 6,000 other pre-registered vehicles Thursday morning at the Traders Village flea market, to pick up two weeks’ worth of free groceries distributed by the San Antonio Food Bank.
Gonzales had been through other downturns after 9/11 and the Great Recession of 2008, he said, but “I was kind of really shocked about this downturn. I couldn’t believe it.”
As Gonzales pulled his cab slowly through the sixth of 10 well-organized food bank supply lines, volunteers loaded bags of dried split peas, rice, carrots, bagels, bread loaves, orange juice, milk, a bushel box of apples, and a whole chicken into the front and back seats through his open windows.
Having arrived early for the 10 a.m. distribution, Gonzales was among the first to receive food, but by 9 a.m., lines of cars in both directions up and down Loop 410 grew into a significant traffic jam. By 11 a.m., a double line of vehicles waiting for food stretched 2 ½ miles past the Ray Ellison Boulevard exit, on both Loop 410 and the frontage road. A similar line waited to the south of the Old Pearsall Road exit. Ultimately, the number of families served swelled to 10,000 by day’s end.
Thursday’s free food distribution was the largest ever witnessed by Eric Cooper, the food bank’s president and CEO since 2001. Before coming to San Antonio, he worked in food banks in North Texas and Salt Lake City.
“It’s not anything like we’ve seen or experienced,” Cooper said. “I’ve been trying to put food on the table for people for 25 years and been through all the hurricanes and tornadoes and a few earthquakes … and on Indian reservations, and [I’ve] just seen poverty. But to see this pandemic hit so many people and just so quickly. … It’s just scary.”
A Staggering Scale
The food bank normally serves 16 counties, with around 550 partner pantries that stock its inventory, enough for five or six pop-up free food markets per day throughout its service area. One food bank truck carried enough to serve rural counties like Atascosa or Real, which usually saw 100 to 400 people seeking food, depending on the population.
Demand has doubled or tripled in each location during the past four weeks of the crisis, placing a strain on supplies. In one rural county last week, what would normally have been 200 people seeking food assistance grew to 1,000. Cooper estimated that 80 percent of partner pantries are still in operation and that food retailers H-E-B, Walmart, Costco, Sam’s Club, Trader Joe’s, and Super Target continue to donate but struggle with their own supply chains due to high demand.
Before COVID-19, Cooper said, a typical parking lot pop-up food distribution would serve 400 families. That took 22 pallets of food delivered by one 53-foot semi trailer. To feed 6,000 requires 25 trailers, making “laps to and from the warehouse,” shuttling 1 million pounds of food on 550 pallets. To accommodate the extra 4,000 families seeking assistance Thursday, Cooper arranged for five more semi truckloads of food, to be stretched as far as possible among the remaining vehicles.
The Food Bank still does five or six rural pop-ups per day and two major pop-ups in the city per week. Cooper said they’re doing everything they can to meet the increased demand, but “there’s no way we’re meeting all the requests” for assistance that comes through the Food Bank website and phone line (210-337-3663).
“The solution to hunger is the right food, right amount, right time,” Cooper said. “When you align those three things, then everybody’s nourished. … I think our future could be more misses in those three areas” without more philanthropic and State support, he said. If the current demand of 120,000 meal boxes per week keeps up, the food bank will run out of supplies in one month. A further increase, to an estimated 150,000 meals per week, he said, would mean empty shelves when supplies are needed most.
“We’re really praying and hoping that the state of Texas steps in with a significant intervention,” Cooper said. The San Antonio Office of Emergency Management advised making a State of Texas Assistance Request directly to the governor’s office and the Texas Division of Emergency Management, given the March 13 major disaster declaration that makes way for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“We’ve asked for four weeks of food to meet this additional need, which equals about 171 semi trucks of food – that’s what we need,” Cooper said. In money terms, that adds up to a request for $12 million. “We just don’t have that in philanthropy to continue to operate and to meet this need,” he said, “without some type of intervention.”
The additional four weeks of food would be a stopgap to allow people in need to apply for federal Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, which were recently increased in the federal coronavirus emergency stimulus package. Beyond that period, Cooper acknowledged that supply stock – and need – were uncertain.
A grant announced April 2 of $100 million from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos to Feeding America, a nationwide consortium of 200 food banks, would mean about $500,000 for the food bank to help cope with the crisis. Cooper said he hopes philanthropists will see the need and offer more help.
On the Front Lines
Two hundred volunteer workers helped the food bank on Thursday, with a first shift of 100 giving out food at Traders Village and a second shift for a distribution in Atascosa County.
Manning the stacks of split peas in line 6 was Joe Estrada, a neighbor of Cooper’s and leader of his own promotional marketing business. Estrada had approached Cooper to see how he might help and took a few hours out of a busy schedule to give out food.
“I always look at it as you’re blessed in many different ways throughout your life. And so it’s always nice when you can pay it forward and do little things like this,” Estrada said. After the distribution he would be back to work, he said, providing personal protective equipment to clients.
“Unfortunately, I have a pretty busy day, but I told Eric that I’d be here and I’ll be back another day if they need me,” he said.
Next to him stood Patricia Chavarria, operations manager for the San Antonio Dream Center, a nonprofit group that serves underprivileged and incarcerated populations. Normally, the Dream Center does weekly food drives, but during the coronavirus pandemic Chavarria shifted to helping the food bank distribute groceries.
“It’s what we love to do. We’re Christ’s hands and feet. We were called to serve. And so we’re here serving,” she said.
Nearby, C. J. Littlefield, senior citizen coordinator for the Ella Austin Community Center, waved the next car toward the first food tent in line 5. Of the enormity of the current situation, he said, “we’ve never experienced nothing like this, but in a sense, it’s a wakeup call. … We’re gonna have to learn how to be more considerate and be more loving, more caring, more respectful, you know? We’ve got to get away from all this greed.”
New Job Descriptions
Cooper’s staff now numbers 275, up from 250 thanks to new hires for the pandemic. He calls them, along with the volunteers who help with food distribution, heroes and miracle workers.
“We’re so blessed to have a great staff and team that are running toward the crisis when many people are running away,” he said, acknowledging the anxiety among people fearing they might be exposed to the coronavirus and bring it home to their families. “I’m so proud of my staff for turning out when San Antonio’s needed us the most.”
Among them are parents who choose not to hold their newborns, spouses living apart, even at-risk cancer survivors and seniors, who continue to work. Onsite child care is just one new addition to food bank protocols, Cooper said, to help employees keep working and seeing to the needs of their own families while helping others.
After arranging the logistics of efficiently distributing 1 million pounds of food to 6,000 families in need, Cooper credited his staff and volunteers and declared himself “largely useless” onsite at Traders Village. He proceeded to The Sorento senior apartments on Fredericksburg Road, where he hand-delivered meal packages with household supplies to three apartments whose residents had requested assistance through the Food Bank’s web portal. The norm is 500 requests citywide for meal packages per week, which in “this COVID environment” has gone up to 1,500 per week delivered either by VIA Metropolitan Transit or volunteers, he said, “and I am the surrogate volunteer today.”
After completing the deliveries, Cooper reflected on how the current crisis only amplifies everyday inequalities and the problems they cause. “It’s about a greater sense of consciousness that if, well, when … we get through this, if we can come together as a city and really address the inequities that we’ve always suffered from, with the high rate of poverty and segregation around opportunity,” Cooper said.
Long-term solutions to food insecurity and hunger in our communities, he suggested, go beyond making food available to people who need it in an emergency. “I don’t think that we’ll ever solve hunger with a canned good. It’s about building conscience,” he said, among businesses, CEOs, and elected officials. “To me, that means that people’s needs are taken care of,” including a living wage for working families, access to adequate health care, and paid sick leave.
“We all need to be working harder to understand that we’re all in this together. And there shouldn’t be winners or losers. … If we learn anything from COVID-19, we realize that we’re all human beings and we all have these basic needs and they have to be met,” he said.
A Fracture in the System
Summing up his experience for the day at lunchtime, before heading back to another 12-hour day at the food bank’s Southwest San Antonio headquarters, Cooper said, “Today was a little sobering. I’ve never seen anything like that.”
Quoting wisdom he recently received from a plumber, Cooper said that when there’s a lot of pressure in a water system, you’re going to have leaks. “America has seen the leaks and the cracks and what’s not tight and what we haven’t done well, because we’re under so much pressure. And 6,000 people showing up just to get some nourishment is a part of this fracture.”
Earlier, Southside resident Robin Bullard had been in the food bank line for the first time, for an issue unrelated to the pandemic. A house fire forced her household of four adults and five children into temporary housing. For today, at least, she would be able to bring them enough food for two weeks.
Cooper said others in line included previous volunteers at the food bank who might never have expected to be on the other side of the handouts.
Asked if he feels he and the food bank are doing all they can to alleviate the hunger crisis caused by coronavirus, Cooper said, “Yeah, and it’s not enough.”