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As hunger spikes during the coronavirus pandemic, the San Antonio Food Bank has kept up with need by expanding its services tenfold, drawing national attention for its capabilities. Much of that attention focused on the miles-long lines of cars waiting for food last Thursday at Traders Village, which is a situation that Eric Cooper, food bank president and CEO, would not like to see repeated.
The 10,000-car traffic jam, daylong wait times, and overwhelming demand create fear, panic, and exhaustion, Cooper said. As a result, the food bank “Mega Distribution” held Friday morning at the Alamodome was scaled down to serve 2,000 families, providing two weeks’ worth of groceries to each.
The food bank continues its pop-up free markets in the 16-county area surrounding Bexar County, with increased capacity, and has ramped up its additional food delivery service from 40 to 160 boxes per day. Anyone interested in volunteering to help distribute the additional food resources is encouraged to apply on the website.
The scale of the growing need for food assistance is readily visible, Cooper said. But “how we go about meeting that need is, absolutely, that we’re not serving [fewer] families, we’re just trying to serve the families in a more decentralized way.”
The food bank will continue to operate two Mega Distribution sites per week, serving families who pre-register through the website or by phone. However, by spreading awareness of the other distribution sites and additional federal and state benefits, people in need will continue to be served without overwhelming capacity. “We’re learning as we go,” he said.
Cooper said reports came in Thursday evening that cars had already started assembling at the site, for fear of missing out. But preregistration guarantees a food package, so lining up early does not help. “One hundred percent of those that preregistered will get food,” he said.
At the Alamodome, vehicles were directed to a check-in lot. At 10 a.m., a slow trickle of vehicles started making their way through one of ten rows of food tents, to receive packages of rice, dried beans, coconut water, fresh produce, and other staples. Two-hundred volunteers handed out the food, placing items in trunks, pickup beds, and on seats through open windows.
Friday was the second time Teresa Cervantes had volunteered, along with fellow retirees Kay Andresen, and Holly Retzloff. Cervantes is a military veteran and said, “I tell my VFW post to send people to the food banks if they don’t have food, because they’ve been laid off or because they’re retired, or they just don’t have the money right now.”
She said she sees veterans’ hats in the vehicles they serve, but also “all varieties [of people],” including families and young people who have lost their jobs.
By 12:30 p.m., most vehicles had been served, though a line of 40 cars still stretched northward up Hackberry Street, waiting to check in.
Victoria Oropeza is self-employed, running a small party rentals business. Normally this time of year she’d be busy with baby showers, birthday parties, and school graduations. “None of that’s gonna happen this year, unfortunately,” she said.
Oropeza said she did not file taxes last year, but was able to register for a $1,200 federal stimulus check through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, and said she’d be on her way to pick up the check after receiving her food bank distribution. The money would go to bills and might last a month, she said, and she would look to apply for unemployment benefits since they had been extended to the self-employed.
Beyond that, she said, her future is uncertain. “It’s never, never been like this before. Never. And I don’t even know that anybody knows where we’re going from here. … And I know they want to open up the economy, which is scary for everybody,” she said.
Small business owners like her are hurting, Oropeza said. “I cannot imagine for some of these people, how they’re doing it unless they had savings. But a lot of small businesses don’t. Sometimes you just reinvest that money, you know?”
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Last week, Cooper said the food bank warehouses would be depleted within a month if they didn’t receive more help from the state or federal government, amounting to an estimated 171 truckloads of food, valued at $12 million. On Thursday, he confirmed that the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Texas Department of Emergency Management had promised 144 truckloads, valued at $9.3 million, to help with the immediate need.
The Hearst Foundations on Thursday announced a $250,000 grant to help the food bank deal with the COVID-19 crisis, and author Shea Serrano arranged a $100,000 donation through social media fundraising.
The next 2,000-family Mega Distributions will be Tuesday at Hardin Field in the Northside athletic complex and Friday at Toyota Field.
Food Bank Chief Resources Officer Michael Guerra said pre-registration for both distributions is already full, and “we would love to have people call to learn all the ways they can access food,” by calling the food bank at 210-337-3663. “We hope the Mega Distributions are the exception and not the norm,” Guerra said.