How Hunger Relief Organizations Are Keeping Record Numbers of North Texans Fed During the Pandemic

2 weeks ago
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Food banks have long played a vital role in making sure that Americans across the country are fed daily, one that became even more crucial when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. In March, as businesses were required to close their doors and people across North Texas lost their jobs as a result, the North Texas Food Bank saw a crush of demand like never before. In order to get food to the people who desperately needed it, the organization would have to make major changes to its approach, and fast.

“Nobody could have anticipated what the future really held, and what the realities of that would be,” says North Texas Food Bank chief operating officer Brad Stewart. “The pace at which things were changing was dramatic, and we had to figure out how to roll with that on a consistent basis.”

The closure of those businesses resulted in a dramatic increase in unemployment across North Texas, and an acute need for food assistance. Considering that most Americans don’t have a pile of money sitting around in an emergency savings account, COVID-19 brought a 40 percent increase in the number of people who sought out help from the North Texas Food Bank’s partner agencies and its brand-new mobile pantry operation for the first time ever.

Generally, the North Texas Food Bank is not directly involved in delivering food to hungry people in the region. Instead, it functions as merchandising operation and distribution center for a network of soup kitchens, food pantries, and meal programs all over the 13 area counties it serves. Operating out of two massive warehouses in Plano and Oak Cliff, the organization’s leadership quickly began to strategize as to how its operations would need to adapt in order to meet a dramatic increase in demand driven by record unemployment.

Instead of moving large pallets of food to its partner agencies, as it had in the past, the Food Bank began putting together individual boxes of food that could be distributed to families in need via its partner agencies and new mobile pantry pickup operation. It was a completely different way of doing business, which involved replacing the giant pallets of food that are typically distributed to partner agencies with tens of thousands of boxes of food for individual families. During the summer, the height of COVID-19’s first wave, Stewart says that the organization was packing more than 60,000 boxes per week.

At the same time that the organization was shifting its operations to a more labor-intensive distribution model, many of the 40,000 volunteers who typically serve at the North Texas Food Bank each year were sheltering in place instead of scheduling shifts to package meals. “Volunteers were kind of disappearing on us, at a time when we were getting more boxes than ever before,” Stewart says. “That was a challenge as the model became dramatically more dependent on labor.” As a result, members of the Texas National Guard were deployed to keep things running smoothly.

A man in a red t-shirt and blue face masks stands over boxes of shelf-stable milk, preparing to sort them into bags.
Volunteers pack boxes of shelf-stable milk
North Texas Food Bank [Official Photo]

Metrocrest Services, a nonprofit organization that partners with the North Texas Food Bank to run its food distribution program in Carrollton, also had to make major changes to the way that it distributed food to its clients. Like most Food Bank partner agencies, Metrocrest Services operates via a “client-choice” food pantry model, which involves a grocery store-style setup where people can come in and “shop” for food according to a certain set of parameters. In the era of social distancing, that just wasn’t possible anymore — especially considering that it went from serving about 40 families a day, in executive director Tracy Eubanks’s estimation, to 300 carloads of people per day.

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of the client-choice model that these organizations use. According to Stewart, it’s a way for Metrocrest Services to empower its clients by letting them make their own choices about what they need. There’s a problematic mindset among some people that those in need should be forced to subsist on English peas and bologna sandwiches and be grateful for what they’re given, but that’s not how Metrocrest Services approaches its work.

“The biggest thing that we’ve lost is the dignity and respect that people have in being able to choose their own food,” Stewart says. “So now, we have to be really diligent and thoughtful in what we’re providing to families because they’re not able to make those choices for themselves.”

Which meant that Eubanks and his team had to think of an entirely new distribution model, one that would make sure that people in Carrollton had enough to eat while keeping the organization’s volunteers and clients safe. In lieu of the client-choice pantry, Metrocrest Services set up tents in its parking lot to serve as a command center for a new drive-thru operation that serves thousands of families each week via large boxes filled with canned goods, peanut butter, fresh produce, and other staples. For senior citizens and other individuals who aren’t able to make the drive to Metrocrest Services to pick up food, a fleet of employees and volunteers makes deliveries to their homes every single week. “We have cars lined up all day, every day, and we have for the past seven months,” Eubanks says. “For a time, we were barely able to keep up.”

The supply chain issues that made it difficult to find flour and toilet paper on grocery store shelves also had a dramatic impact on hunger relief organizations like these. In addition to donations from individuals, corporations, and food producers, food banks use cash donations to buy much of the food that they distribute. As it became more difficult to get their hands on certain goods, these organizations found themselves competing with major retailers, which were much better poised to pay a premium for high-demand items. At one point, early in the COVID-19 outbreak, the North Texas Food Bank’s massive warehouse, which typically houses around 10 million pounds of food on any given day, had been depleted to only about 3 million pounds.

“We were getting pretty bare around the time when there was a lot of panic-buying happening in the broader marketplace, and it left us in a position where we were competing with these big-box stores who were also struggling to keep their shelves stocked,” Stewart says. “And of course, their ability to pay is much greater than ours, and we’re going to lose that contest every single time.” To restock the shelves, the North Texas Food Bank applied for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and supplemental funding from the state of Texas.

Now, even though demand remains high, the Food Bank’s shelves are full. Its typical warehouse inventory of 10 million pounds of food has increased to 13 million pounds, something that Stewart expects to stay about the same in the coming months amid an unpredictable economic outlook and a second wave of COVID-19 as the state of Texas tops 1 million confirmed cases, the most in the country.

“Our expectation is that once we’re clear of the social distancing and the actual medical impacts of the virus itself, we expect another 18 to 24 months of economic and food insecurity,” Stewart says. “We’re working in real time to sort out how we can do as much as we can do, how we can play our finances for the long run and sustain as much of our throughput as we possibly can. We know the demand is out there, and we’re going to meet it.”

At the same time, Eubanks is hoping that the federal government will provide some kind of assistance that will alleviate the burdens on both hunger relief organizations and American families. Talks for a second economic stimulus bill, which could’ve put $ 1,200 or more in the hands of everyone in the country, stalled back in August, and it seems unlikely that much movement will be made on a new deal until President-elect Joe Biden takes office in January 2021. Still, Eubanks is optimistic that a deal is coming, one that will hopefully direct money to people who have struggled throughout the pandemic.

“The stimulus check would be great, but there’s more that the federal government can do,” Eubanks says. “It could bring back supplemental unemployment benefits, as we’re seeing unemployment claims go back up again. It could increase SNAP benefits. We need some direct assistance to people who are in need, and we need some new funding sources for organizations like us that are providing these essential services.”

Whether or not any of that happens, organizations like Metrocrest Services and the North Texas Food Bank will still be there, ready to make sure that everyone in Dallas-Fort Worth has enough to eat. Metrocrest is building a bigger headquarters in Carrollton, a process that’s expected to take another two or three years.

In the meantime, it’ll move into the First Christian Church that’s currently sitting vacant on the property in the coming months, with plans to transform it into a hybrid distribution center. There, its clients would have access to both an indoors, client-choice food pantry and a drive-thru set up.

The organization is still figuring out the logistics, but for now, they’re excited about a future in which the client-choice pantry can come back. At present, the idea is to set up a hybrid system that would allow some patrons to come inside, while others in high-risk groups, like seniors and people with disabilities, could take advantage of a drive-thru system. However it shakes out, they’ll have to stay flexible, and fortunately, the pandemic has made them more nimble than ever.

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