Janet McDaniel first started volunteering at the San Antonio Food Bank more than eight years ago to get involved in her new community. Now, it’s her favorite part of the week.

As McDaniel stood in line Thursday with 20 other masked and gloved food bank volunteers packing cereal, orange juice, and powdered milk into cardboard boxes, she said she’s seen a lot of volunteers come and go over the past year.

Volunteers have come “in waves” since the pandemic’s start, with many hesitant to turn out for fear of catching COVID-19, San Antonio Food Bank President and CEO Cooper told the San Antonio Report following a short press conference with Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). Cornyn was at the food bank Thursday to highlight National Volunteer Month and the continued need at nonprofit organizations for workers. 

U.S. Senator John Cornyn (R) joins the President and CEO of the San Antonio Food Bank, Eric Cooper, in an assembly line to pack boxes with non-perishable food items for those in need.
From left: Eric Cooper, president and CEO of the San Antonio Food Bank, watches Thursday as U.S. Sen. John Cornyn works on an assembly line to pack boxes with nonperishable foods for those in need. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

Without volunteers, the food bank would not be able to do its daily business, said Chief Resource Officer Michael Guerra. The lack of volunteers has forced individuals, families, congregations, and associations to have to step up and fill in, he added.

In recent weeks, as more vaccines find their way into Texans’ arms, volunteer numbers have started to return to normal, Guerra said. 

“We are averaging 2,000 volunteers a week and this is inline with our numbers pre-pandemic,” Guerra told the San Antonio Report via email Monday. 

Still, summer is a critical season for the San Antonio Food Bank, Cooper said. 

Food insecurity tends to increase when children are out of school. Many families who depend on food provided by school districts during the academic year find it difficult to make ends meet when more mouths are home needing to be fed. 

“As we get into the summer months, things will just get a lot busier,” Cooper said. 

Cooper encouraged vaccinated residents to consider volunteering, a suggestion Cornyn echoed. 

“What I want to do is encourage everybody who’s listening to get their vaccine, as soon as they can possibly do that,” Cornyn said. “And then come on down to the food bank, help out at any one of these nonprofit organizations and give back to help other people.”

While food bank volunteer numbers are starting to return to normal, the same cannot be said for the San Antonio branches of Meals on Wheels and Big Brothers Big Sisters.

“Over the last year we really saw a decrease in volunteer numbers,” said Kristin Rivera, Meals on Wheels Community Engagement director. “We normally have 200 routes that go out each day. Ideally, we need a volunteer for each one of those.”

On a good day, Meals on Wheels now has about 150 volunteers delivering meals, Rivera said. Many Meals on Wheels staff members have been required to cover routes to make up the difference, she said.

Previously, seniors receiving services would get a hot meal and some face-to-face time with a volunteer five times a week. Since the pandemic began, they’ve been receiving one hot meal and several frozen meals two times a week, and socialization has been reduced to phone calls and other socially distanced methods.

Now that all Texas adults are eligible for the vaccine, Rivera said Meals on Wheels staff is hoping volunteer numbers begin returning to normal.

Meals on Wheels has been actively connecting its volunteers and staff to vaccination opportunities to help the process along, Rivera said.

“We just had the Fire Department down here [Monday] vaccinating some of our folks,” she said.

At Big Brothers Big Sisters of South Texas, the number of monthly volunteer inquiries has diminished severely, President and CEO Denise Barkhurst told the San Antonio Report. Volunteers are partnered with a local at-risk child and act as a mentor or friend to that child.

“Pre-pandemic we experienced up to 200 volunteers per month making an inquiry,” Barkhurst said. “The 2020 average was 72 per month.”

January, which tends to be one of the organization’s stronger volunteerism months, saw only 53 inquiries this year, Barkhurst said. Meanwhile, the need in the community has only increased over the past year, she added.

To address the problem, the organization has hired a second recruiter, Barkhurst said. It hopes having two recruiters out in the community as vaccine distributions increase will help volunteer numbers get back to pre-COVID levels, she said.

“They’re needed even more now than ever,” Barkhurst said.

Lindsey Carnett

Lindsey Carnett is the general assignment reporter for the San Antonio Report.