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U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) arrived at about 10 a.m. Friday morning to find the San Antonio Food Bank mega distribution at the Alamodome already well underway. The sixth mega distribution at the site started at 9 a.m., one hour earlier than past food distributions, to help avoid the summer heat, said Eric Cooper, food bank president and CEO.
Cornyn was on hand to help distribute fresh bags of green beans and cases of canned chili, and to draw attention to the food bank’s efforts to feed hungry San Antonians. In a statement to media gathered for his appearance, Cornyn mentioned the hundreds of volunteers who regularly help set bags and boxes of canned goods, fresh produce, milk, juice, and other foods in the trunks, back seats, and pickup beds of vehicles lined up to receive food.
“Y’all are doing the Lord’s work here,” Cornyn told the food bank volunteers. “There’s nothing that sort of gets your mind off of your own problems more than helping others, and seeing that other people maybe are in tougher shape than you are.”
Cornyn wore a blue face covering and latex gloves during his appearance and asked that people gathered around him maintain a 6-foot distance as he spoke, briefly removing the mask. During his remarks, the senator emphasized the importance of personal responsibility and proper hygiene to help prevent the spread of coronavirus.
“There’s no reason for any of us to feel helpless. Each one of us can do our part,” he said.
Cornyn described congressional efforts “to meet this emergency” with direct payments to individuals and families, extended unemployment benefits, and the $670 billion Paycheck Protection Program, which he called, “the most successful part of what we’ve done so far. … The whole goal was to try to keep small businesses connected with their employees.”
Cornyn mentioned $11.2 billion in state and local stabilization funds, some of which will go to the City of San Antonio and Bexar County for economic relief efforts and public health expenditures. “Part of what we need to do is to give our local elected officials flexibility to learn how to spend it,” Cornyn said, given how spending guidelines continue to evolve in response to the crisis.
“I’m confident we will end up passing another installment of legislation,” Cornyn said. But the recent $3 trillion aid bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives “has no chance of becoming law.”
Cornyn praised the bipartisanship of the earlier $2 trillion economic aid package but characterized the House bill as an act of partisanship. “I don’t think that’s what the American people expect from us or deserve,” he said. “We’re going to keep working and try to find common ground but that’s not the way to do it.”
Asked whether the estimated 2,000 people in line for free food distribution might have benefited more from an emergency increase in food stamp benefits, which would allow them to buy groceries rather than seek food donations, Cornyn replied, “We have enhanced the [food stamp] program, we’ve added tens of billions of dollars to try to get food to people who need it, in various ways.”
He described the challenge of funding multiple programs.
“We’re doing the best we can and under a time of emergency,” Cornyn said. “I’m sure we’re not going to be perfect, but we’re sure gonna give it everything we got.”
Celia Cole, CEO of Feeding Texas, a statewide association of 21 food banks, also helped load food into cars alongside Cornyn, and praised the senator for “marshaling appropriate and timely support for people in need in Texas.”
Cole said the next round of federal support should focus on a more equitable distribution of Farms to Families boxed food program among all food banks, using “established distribution partners” to make food distribution as efficient as possible. Cole said she would advocate for loosening eligibility requirements due to the range of need caused by expansive unemployment, and said a 15 percent boost in federal food stamp benefits, similar to an expansion of the program in response to the financial crisis of 2008, would help close gaps that existing programs don’t cover.
Cole said she frequently fields calls from people in need, in particularly an elderly resident in Austin who is already receiving the current maximum food stamp benefits. “He’s calling daily to see if Congress is going to extend those maximum allotments because he’s just not sure how he’s going to eat,” she said, and “just that little bump” in benefits could make the difference.
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Cooper had previously asked for $12 million in emergency aid from the State of Texas to replenish supplies, fearing the food bank would run out due to the extreme spike in demand. He said the State came through with $9.1 million, which afforded 200 truckloads of food. The Texas Division of Emergency Management also delivered six truckloads of peanut butter, jars of which were being handed out Friday.
“Most of it’s gone already,” Cooper said, but he expects the Emergency Food Assistance Program to provide more supplies in midsummer. “So that really does give some hope.”
After the near-chaos of an April 12 mega distribution that swelled to 10,000 families seeking food, the food bank has streamlined its preregistration process and limits its weekly mega distribution to efficiently supplying 2,000 families with a two-week supply of food. Daily distributions supply 400 families.
Friday morning, the lines of vehicles receiving food diminished by 10:30 a.m., with a few stragglers served before 11 a.m. Alamodome Facility Manager Darius Dunn, who has helped coordinate previous distributions, praised the food bank’s organizational capabilities and evolving response. “They’ve got it down to a master playbook now.”
As Cornyn placed a case of canned chili into the rear of his vehicle, laid-off laundromat worker Adolfo Sullivan said he hadn’t expected a U.S. senator to be serving him.
“Hang in there,” Cornyn said, waving a gloved hand.
Sullivan replied, “Alright, we’ll try.”