Food insecurity in Austin amid COVID-19

first_imgImage Magazine: Spring 2021 Facebook Haeven Gibbons Fort Worth’s first community fridge program helps serve vulnerable neighborhoods Linkedin Students debut performances of drag personas as part of unique new course ReddIt Welcome TCU Class of 2025 RELATED ARTICLESMORE FROM AUTHOR + posts Linkedin Previous articleCivil rights protesters gather by the thousands despite an active pandemicNext articleA COVID-19 Charles Schwab Challenge Haeven Gibbons Twitter NewsFault LinesIn-depth reportingFood insecurity in Austin amid COVID-19By Haeven Gibbons – July 1, 2020 1506 TCU social work majors go into the field to help support Fort Worth’s homeless Haeven Gibbonshttps://www.tcu360.com/author/haeven-gibbons/ Haeven Gibbonshttps://www.tcu360.com/author/haeven-gibbons/ printThis is one in a series of stories that examines how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted systemic issues through the Fault Lines of race, class, gender, generation, geography and sexual orientation. Loading 50%Food Insecurity in Austin Amid COVID-19Small nonprofits and large food banks alike man the front lines of COVID-19 By Haeven GibbonsIt is 7:45. Morning commuters have begun to choke Interstate 35. Neighborhoods are waking up.In 45 minutes, people will line the sidewalk in front of the Blackland Neighborhood Center waiting to fill their bags with produce, meat and perishable items. Some have been here since 7 a.m. Early risers hope to beat the crowd and get the first pick of produce and especially meat. They’re waiting for Allen Schroeder, founder of Save the Food, a nonprofit organization that recovers food from grocery stores and redistributes it to the public. Schroeder is on the front lines confronting the food crisis in Travis County.  As of 2018, the food insecurity rate in Travis County was 12.9%, according to Feeding America. This percentage is growing as COVID-19 affects people’s financial well-being and, in turn, their food stability.Allen Schroeder, founder of the local Austin area nonprofit organization Save the Food.Allen Schroeder, founder of the local Austin area nonprofit organization Save the Food.The number of eligible individuals for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in Travis County grew by 10,142 individuals since January, according to data from Texas Health and Human Services, which runs the county’s program. The jump mirrors the increase in unemployment in Travis County, which spiked from 34,500 people in January, to  138,100 people in April, according to the U.S. Dept. of Labor. Save the Food recovers about 24,000 pounds of food a month from local grocery stores. In May, Central Texas Food Bank distributed 5,703,433 pounds of food, the most ever. Both small- and large-scale organizations are adjusting their operations to help combat growing food insecurity in Austin. As the unemployment rate in Austin continues to rise due to COVID-19, more people become susceptible to facing food insecurity.As COVID-19 raises the number of those affected by food insecurity, food banks and social service nonprofits are stretched thin trying to meet demand and social distancing restrictions. COVID-19 means there are often fewer volunteers and fewer opportunities for distributions.It’s not enough to collect food any more. As neighborhood centers have closed due to the virus, Schroeder, who has run Save the Food for 12 years, has spent a lot of time figuring out how to distribute it.  “Since COVID I’m working twice as hard,” he said. Pre-COVID-19, Schroeder brought food to five neighborhood centers including Blackland, South Austin, East Austin, Rosewood-Zaragosa and St.John’s Neighborhood Center. The pandemic shut their doors. He only goes to Blackland and South Austin, where he distributes food outdoors.  “Pre-COVID, I would pull up and the center would send out carts with their staff and they would roll the food inside and take care of it,” Schroeder said. “That’s it. Now, my total workload for the week has increased by about six hours.” Jockeying for positionOn this Thursday morning, Schroeder parked his black minivan on Salina Street in front of the Blackland Neighborhood Center. Seven people waited nearby, chatting. Others were parked along the street. Some stood in their driveways or porches.Schroeder’s 2008 Chrysler Town & Country is crammed with food – fruit, meat, vegetables and bread. There’s also canned goods, crackers and snacks in the boxes that nearly touch the roof. Schroeder hustles. He has to unpack and line the boxes along the curb. More people have arrived. There are now 20 people waiting to fill shopping bags. Distribution starts in 15 minutes. Allen Schroeder, founder of the local Austin area nonprofit organization Save the FoodAllen Schroeder, founder of the local Austin area nonprofit organization Save the FoodSchroeder brings recovered food from the local Wheatsville and Sprouts grocery stores to the Blackland Neighborhood center three times a week. Watermelon, cantaloupe, lettuce, bananas, bell peppers, tomatoes and pineapple fill the boxes.Trash bags filled with loaves of bread are sprawled out on the lawn in front of the center. A small crate holds meats, and cardboard boxes hold perishable and canned goods.Schroeder has gathered all the food he could get. “I don’t like to see any food thrown down, you know, going to the landfill,” he said. Micaela Guerrero was one of the first in line. It was around 7:45 a.m. when she parked across the street and walked to the center to wait outside–one of the early birds. She placed her reusable grocery bag on the sidewalk to claim her spot in line. She has been coming to the Blackland Neighborhood Center food distribution for five years. Christina, who did not want her last name used, has been coming for seven years.Schroeder said he’s seen a few new faces since COVID-19, but most of the people are regulars, who adapted quickly to the distribution changes. “These people have been coming here and doing this for so long, nothing has changed for them, food wise,” he said. “They vie for position, you know. If you’re first in line, and there’s only a few choice pieces of meat, you get the first thing, so it’s quite the thing, and they can get into little squabbles about it.”New Demands, New DistributionsThe growth of food insecurity in Austin demanded organizations combating the issue to adapt their methods drastically. “There were other demands once COVID started happening,” said Schroeder. “People were requesting that I move the food in a different direction.” That is exactly what he did, even though this meant completely changing the way he operated. Micaela Guerrero loads her car with food. She often stays after the others leave to help Schroeder put the boxes back in his car and sort through any food that was not collected.Micaela Guerrero loads her car with food. She often stays after the others leave to help Schroeder put the boxes back in his car and sort through any food that was not collected.Micaela Guerrero (right) discuses a food with Christina (left). Blackland Neighborhood Center is the only food distribution site the two visit regularly. Micaela Guerrero (right) discuses a food with Christina (left). Blackland Neighborhood Center is the only food distribution site the two visit regularly. A client asks Schroeder how much of a particular item she can take.A client asks Schroeder how much of a particular item she can take.People shop at the Blackland Neighborhood food distribution, set up by Save the Food on Thursday, June 18.People shop at the Blackland Neighborhood food distribution, set up by Save the Food on Thursday, June 18.Clients shop for the food they want to take home. Many live around the area and walk to the Blackland Neighborhood food distribution.Clients shop for the food they want to take home. Many live around the area and walk to the Blackland Neighborhood food distribution.With neighborhood centers closing their doors during a time when they were needed most, Schroeder had to shift his method of giveaway. He no longer just drops off food but conducts the entire giveaway, which is why he is only able to serve two neighborhood centers now. “Logistically it’s too much time and effort to go to the cooler, load up, go to the centers, put the food down, do a giveaway, load it back up in my car and bring back the leftovers to the cooler. I had to streamline,” said Schroeder. Schroeder said he doesn’t know what the people at the East Austin Neighborhood Center did after he could no longer serve them. “They found other pantries to go to I’m sure. There’s a whole list of pantries in town and a resourceful person can find food if they’re willing to look for it and either drive there or get on the bus or something,” said Schroeder. But he said COVID-19 likely shortened that list. “There were a lot of pantries that just said, ‘stop bringing food in, we can’t have the interactions anymore,’” said Schroeder. “Foundation Communities, they said, ‘stop.’ The Rebecca Banks Johnson Center, they had a pantry on their first floor, they said, ‘stop.’ A place called Street Youth Ministry, they said ‘stop.'” What didn’t change is the amount of food Schroeder recovers from local grocery stores like Wheatsville, Sprouts, Fresh Plus and Thoms. But with fewer places to distribute it, Schroeder had to figure out how to get food to people in need. With the neighborhood centers and pantries closed, he found new giveaway sites with lots of need. Casa Marianella is on his new list of stops. It provides safe housing and services for immigrants arriving in Austin. Schroeder said many of the people living in the apartments there lost their jobs at the onset of the virus. He distributes food at three Casa Marianella apartment complexes twice a week. About eight people show up at each distribution. “They all load up real heavy,” said Schroeder. Each person takes about 20 to 25 pounds of food home with them from the distribution. He also stops by a homeless camp that’s in a park adjacent to the South Austin Neighborhood Center. Rather than giving out food that has to be cooked, Schroeder offers food that was prepared and pre-packaged at Sprouts grocery store. Schroeder also gets meals from a nonprofit called Keep Austin Together, a program spearheaded by The Cook’s Nook. The nonprofit provides prepared meals through a Travis County-supported Supplemental Emergency Feeding Access Network (SEFAN) by converting local restaurants into a meal creation center and training their kitchen staff to prepare meals to be distributed to nonprofits. The network is funded through September. “I receive 400 meals a week,” Schroeder said. “I get 200 Monday and 200 Friday. Now I’m pretty much set on where they’re going. I take some of them to my clients, but I also have people coming to get them out of my cooler.”  Schroeder said 170 of these meals go to Communities in Schools. He gives 50 to Sunrise Community Church, 100 to Indeed and 80 to a residential services nonprofit.Yet another task Schroder has taken on due to COVID-19 has been to recover food from the Sprouts store where he works, Sprouts 125, for the Central Texas Food Bank. The CTFB recovers food from all of the Sprouts stores. Schroeder said since he works for a Sprouts, he wanted to make sure that all the food recovery possible was happening. “I partnered with the CTFB; it’s really kind of a side gig,” he said. “CTFB was always sending a truck here on Monday, Wednesday and Friday which is not getting everything that could be gotten, and since I’m a food recovery expert, I thought, let me call them and see if I can’t help them out here because I don’t like to see any food going to the landfill.”  Schroeder said CTFB first let him recover food on the days it didn’t send its truck to do so, but eventually, he convinced officials to let him be in charge of the Sprouts 125 food recovery every day. “So, the food recovery for Sprouts 125 is all me, every day, 7 a.m. Monday through Sunday,” he said. “As long as I go into their databank and I record what I’ve picked up into their system I’m good to go, so technically it’s the food bank’s food recovery, but I do the work, so I call it mine as well.” Products CTFB has recovered from grocery stores. The food will be sorted and packed. Products CTFB has recovered from grocery stores. The food will be sorted and packed. Central Texas Food Bank Adjusts Processes to Cater to Growing Food Insecurity Amid COVID-19Like Schroeder, the Central Texas Food Bank has mobilized and altered its processes to match the demand of food-insecure Texans.Pre-COVID, 46,000 people were served by CTFB in Travis County each week. Within four months, the 46,000 people jumped to between 8,000 and 10,000 people per week, a 207% increase for clients seeking donations in Travis County.  The biggest challenge for CTFB has been the loss of volunteers, according to Sean Linton, CTFB staff member. In a warehouse that normally hosts 60 to 80 volunteers per shift, now only 30 volunteers are allowed per shift to maintain social distancing practices.  Sean Linton (middle), a staff member at Central Texas Food Bank, helps volunteers sort through food on Tuesday, June 23. Sean Linton (middle), a staff member at Central Texas Food Bank, helps volunteers sort through food on Tuesday, June 23.“I’m used to 60 to 80 volunteers. I’m not used to 14 or 18 volunteers,” said Linton. “And we still do the same amount of food if not more, so it increased the amount of work for the staff because we usually just supervise. Now we have to throw ourselves more into help with everything, and the shifts are a lot longer than they used to be.”Food bank staff member Lauren Lichterman started work after the pandemic already began to spread in Austin. She said CTFB has been moving staff around to different jobs that need more attention during times of crisis instead of letting people go.The organization is also trying to be creative with volunteers.There used to be four volunteers per table sorting food in the warehouse. Now, there can only be one volunteer per table, and there is less flexibility to allow volunteers to work in areas they want to work in because CTFB has to make sure only families or couples are working close together. These safety regulations mean more work and longer hours for both staff and volunteers.Linton said he has seen a lot of the same volunteers since the coronavirus outbreak.“People want something to do,” he said.Rebecca, who did not want her last name used, is one of these volunteers. Since COVID-19, she has volunteered at Central Texas Food Bank three times with her son, who needs volunteer hours for the Young Men’s Service League. The food bank is one of the only places they are still able to go to volunteer since most places closed under the order to stay home.With more of the same people volunteering on a weekly basis and less spots to fill, spots sometimes fill up a month in advance. According to Linton, some of the volunteers will sit at their computer, refreshing the page, waiting for a spot to open.  The reduction of volunteers prompted CTFB to partner with several faith-based organizations, which now pack emergency food boxes offsite.Eva (right), a staff member of three years at Central Texas Food Bank, helps a volunteer, Rebecca, sort through canned goods. Eva (right), a staff member of three years at Central Texas Food Bank, helps a volunteer, Rebecca, sort through canned goods. Volunteers pack and weigh boxes. The boxes are weighted so that Central Texas Food Bank partner agencies can request a certain amount of a specific type of good. Volunteers pack and weigh boxes. The boxes are weighted so that Central Texas Food Bank partner agencies can request a certain amount of a specific type of good. The packed boxes are ready to be stacked and loaded into a truck to be dropped off at their final destination.The packed boxes are ready to be stacked and loaded into a truck to be dropped off at their final destination.Contributions from H-E-B, Walmart and Starbucks also increased.“They’ll send us like $100,000 to buy all these products and build special boxes for them so they can do their own distributions,” Linton said.Before COVID-19 mobile food pantry distributions were similar to what Schroeder is doing now. People would go down a line and pick what they wanted. Now, people drive up and volunteers place pre-made boxes of food in their cars. The new process is quicker and involves less exposure.According to Central Texas Food Bank, 15 mass distributions were conducted across Travis, Hays, Bell and McLennan County during April and May, and eight distributions are scheduled for June.CTFB has also partnered with with CapMetro and H-E-B to provide Help-at-Home kits to MetroAccess customers. The program began in March and has since provided 3,704 MetroAccess older adults or individuals who have disabilities with emergency food boxes.The food bank is also working with Austin Parks and Recreation, Foundation Communities and Austin YMCA to provide meals for children until Aug. 14. The effort is meant to fill the gap now that school is out and students can no longer get meals that way. The initiative provides freshly prepared, healthy meals for kids every day at different distribution sites around the city. The food bank serves 21 counties across Central Texas and partners with roughly 260 agencies. It’s located in the 78744 zip code.According to data by Austin Public Health, zip codes 78741 and 78744 had the most coronavirus cases in Travis county as of June 30. In the center of it all, the food bank, its partner agencies and mobile food pantry distributions provide over 600 programs to keep Central Texas fed even during the pandemic.CTFB staff packs meals for children.CTFB staff packs meals for children.TopBuilt with Shorthand World Oceans Day shines spotlight on marine plastic pollution Facebook Grains to grocery: One bread maker brings together farmers and artisans at locally-sourced store Twitter ReddIt Grains to grocery: One bread maker brings together farmers and artisans at locally-sourced store Vintage fever: Fort Worth residents and vintage connoisseurs talk about their passion for thrifting Haeven Gibbonshttps://www.tcu360.com/author/haeven-gibbons/ Haeven Gibbonshttps://www.tcu360.com/author/haeven-gibbons/last_img