Sun visors were propped against windows Friday as the morning glare brightened the Alamodome’s eastside lots where hundreds of people had spent the night in their cars.
Some had slept; others watched movies and waited for the San Antonio Food Bank to open the gates to its latest mega food distribution, a program that began when the coronavirus pandemic led to mass layoffs and financial crisis, doubling the number of people the food bank feeds each week from 60,000 to 120,000.
First in line on Friday was Laura Sheffield. She had arrived at midnight along with all the people parked 25 cars deep in the row behind her, she said.
Sheffield, who fell ill with COVID-19 in March, has been attending the distributions since April, collecting food she shares with an elderly neighbor who helps Sheffield care for her four grandchildren.
She feels the amount of food she receives at each distribution, though generous, has decreased since April. But she understands why. “The approach I have to it is that everything is helpful,” she said. “But it’s just pandemic fatigue in the community.”
More than 1,250 families had registered for the San Antonio Food Bank’s event on Friday, which began at 9 a.m. It’s just one of several ways the food bank distributes food, in addition to area food pantries run by charitable organizations throughout the region.
Though some food pantries have closed due to concern over spreading the virus, the food bank has worked to ensure there are distribution points throughout the city, said Eric Cooper, president and CEO of the San Antonio Food Bank.
But the pandemic also has hampered how the food bank collects food donations and raises funds at a time when donations are needed most. Volunteering is down about 10 percent, too.
“I think we’re always struggling to get the right food and the right amount at the right time,” Cooper said. “We’re going to have a huge struggle with that with Thanksgiving.” The food bank currently has about half the number of turkeys it needs for the holiday, he said.
As the cars at the Alamodome proceeded through the line, volunteers loaded each vehicle’s trunk with 120 to 150 pounds of food.
Trucks delivered enough pallets of fruit, vegetables, chicken, juice, and pet food for 1,300 families. “We always just do a little bit extra just in case,” said Travis Savely, distribution lead for the San Antonio Food Bank, adding that no one gets turned away.
At the start of the pandemic, about 2,000 registered for the mega distributions, with some cars lining up as early as 6 p.m. the previous day, Savely said. But recent distributions have averaged about 1,500 registrants.
Several members of the Army National Guard from Austin and a cadre of community volunteers assist the food bank at the distribution sites. Paige Newman said she has volunteered with the food bank ever since being laid off from her job as a marine biologist.
“I’ve done that for 32 years [but] here’s not much opportunity for marine biologists in San Antonio,” Newman said. “I wanted to do something nice, and this has been great.”
Patricia Blount, the single mother of a teenage son, got in line at 3:15 a.m. so she would have enough time to pick up the food, drop some off at her sister’s house, and make it to work by midmorning.
Blount said she had relied on the food bank even before the pandemic, but her need became even more critical last spring when she lost her nanny job temporarily because her employers were working from home.
But, unlike Blount, the thousands of people who in recent months began seeking support from the food bank are people who had never done so before, Cooper said. Many were laid off from jobs in San Antonio’s large hospitality industry.
But Cooper is still concerned for the thousands living in hunger and poverty before the pandemic began. “I think it’s important for people to wrap their heads around [the fact] we were feeding 60,000 people a week in a community that had less than 3 percent unemployment,” he said.
“A bit of why there’s hunger is a math equation – low wages, no benefits. People are leaning on the food bank to make ends meet. The onset of COVID just pushed a lot of families that felt fairly self-sufficient and independent over the edge because the margins just weren’t there.”
Meanwhile, the first two of seven truckloads of food boxes prepared by local catering company RK Group were set to arrive at the food bank.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture selected RK to distribute a fourth round of emergency food aid through its Farmers to Families Food Program, which runs until the end of the year. The San Antonio Food Bank will begin handing out the boxes, containing meat, dairy items, apples, onions, and potatoes at the food bank on Saturday.
The first round of the aid program was mired in controversy after a small San Antonio catering firm, CRE8AD8, won the $39 million USDA contract despite lacking experience in food distributions and then failed to deliver the full amount of food that was promised. The issue is under investigation.
Neighbors Tom Bradford and April Delgado arrived at the Alamodome distribution event about 5:45 a.m. It was their first time to collect food at the site and they wanted “to beat the rush,” said Bradford, who is retired and dependent on Social Security.
They plan to volunteer to help at upcoming food distributions to “pay forward, pay it backward,” Bradford said.
The RK Group is a financial supporters of the San Antonio Report. For a full list of business members, click here.