On a normal day in San Antonio, the food services company Sodexo prepares 30,000 meals for people who work at large corporate campuses and military installations, and for local universities and hospitals.

In the past few weeks, as some of those places have told people to work and study from home in order to comply with the local Stay Home, Work Safe order, Sodexo also has sent home some of its 300 employees who held jobs in the multiple cafeterias and markets at USAA.

But, starting last week, Sodexo brought what it called a “limited number” of previously fuloughed staff back to USAA campuses in San Antonio and other cities to prepare and sell discounted meals, and distribute staple goods to employees through a drive-thru service.

“A lot of my staff is currently not working,” said Mark Spinelli, vice president of operations for Sodexo at USAA. “We’re actually rotating our staff so that everybody has an opportunity to regain some of the hours that they’re not currently getting.”

The idea to provide takeout meals and groceries began with a USAA Bank employee. Melinda Castañeda, an acquisition and relationship manager who leads a team of 110 people now working from home, had been hearing from customers who are experiencing financial hardships.

Then she began learning about fellow employees who were concerned about being able to find and provide food for their families while also working long hours and caring for their kids or other family members who had lost jobs. Castañeda also heard from other employees who did not want to leave their homes to shop for groceries and risk exposure to the novel coronavirus.

“It really resonated with me as a mom,” she said. So Castañeda contacted her management team with the idea to provide something similar to the care packages and other support the company gave its Tampa employees after a 2017 hurricane.

By last Friday, USAA and Sodexo had launched a pilot takeout program that allows employees to place an order online for meals or food staples such as bread and eggs and pick it up later in the day at a drive-thru in a campus garage.

Individual meals are made to feed two people and sold at half the usual price. Spinelli said the chefs designed the menu to offer meals that would appeal to families.

While H-E-B works to keep up with heavy consumer demand in recent weeks, numerous area restaurants have converted their dine-in operations to provide staple food items. Mi Tierra and La Gloria are two such restaurants, while others, like Hearthstone Bakery Cafe are supplying the basics via pickup or delivery.

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Even with these measures put in place, the National Restaurant Association has estimated between 5 million and 7 million food industry workers will lose their jobs in the next three months as a result of coronavirus-related closures and reduced operations.

Since USAA’s employee takeout program got going on Monday, Sodexo workers have prepared 550 meals, with 225 going out on Tuesday, said Spinelli.

A USAA spokesman said the company is still working to get the word out to employees, but across the enterprise, about 1,000 employees among its 35,000 had placed orders.

Castañeda also feels gratified that the program is making available some basic grocery items that people weren’t able to find before. “Eggs are something that everyone’s been looking to obtain so I’m thankful that they were able to do that,” she said.

The service, available Monday through Friday, is providing only food items, so no toilet paper, the spokesman said.

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is a journalist and writer in San Antonio, and a business reporter for The Rivard Report.