Coronavirus puts strain on local food pantries

By Stephen Paulsen, The Big Bend Sentinel
stephen@bigbendsentinel.com

TRI-COUNTY — As the coronavirus crisis stretches on, demand at local food pantries continues to creep up. From Marfa to Jeff Davis County, workers at food pantries in the tri-county say they’re still seeing regular increases in visitors.

Marfa food pantry volunteer Peggy O’Brien tends the pantry’s garden on Monday evening. As local pantries have seen growing demand, supply of fresh goods has struggled to keep up. Marfa’s pantry garden is helping close that gap. (Claire Lindsay-McGinn / The Big Bend Sentinel)

Few expect those numbers to fall back down anytime soon, as economic fallout from coronavirus continues. “This is a marathon,” said Peggy O’Brien, a volunteer at the Marfa Food Pantry, “not a sprint.”

Meanwhile, food pantries are also coping with other disruptions brought on by coronavirus. They’re implementing social distancing rules for volunteers and switching up distribution plans to minimize contact with consumers.

And with demand surging across the region, food pantry workers said fresh produce is no longer always a reliable part of deliveries from the West Texas Food Bank, which supplies tri-county food pantries. Now pantries are looking for other sources of fresh vegetables and fruits, from finding other suppliers to simply growing it themselves.

In Jeff Davis County, the local food pantries have started buying produce in bulk, just as grocery stores might do.

“We’re paying wholesale prices for fresh produce,” said Vicki Gibson, executive director of the Food Pantry of Jeff Davis County. “It’s a significant hit to our budget.”

Demand for services at the Jeff Davis County food pantries is “still increasing,” Gibson says — though “not as much as it was during the first two or three weeks of the shutdown.”

The biggest increase has been in the “Pack-A-Lunch” program for school kids, Gibson said. But the demand for the food pantry’s regular service has also grown, from around 100 households at the start of the year to 120 now.

The food pantry in Valentine has seen similar increases. It started the year serving 18 households and now serves around 22.

Those numbers may seem modest, “but for us, that’s big,” Gibson said. “We didn’t have that many [households] to start with.”

Aside from increased numbers, the Jeff Davis food pantries have seen other changes. They’ve gone from “client choice,” where patrons can browse the aisles and pick out food items like a regular grocery store, to pickup-only.

And whereas the West Texas Food Bank once sent bulk supplies of food, it now sends pre-packed boxes for families, Gibson said. That saves volunteers in Jeff Davis County time but also reduces the amount of food each family receives — from over 25 pounds on average before the crisis to around 22.

“We’re trying to compensate for them getting fewer items and not having a choice by giving them healthy fresh food,” Gibson said. But with fewer supplies of fresh food from the food bank, finding other supplies for it is proving expensive.

In Alpine, demand at the local food pantry has leveled out after rising at the start of local shelter-in-place orders, said Jan Moeller, a board member and the store manager. She suspects the number could rise as shelter-in-place orders end, as “maybe people will be getting out more.”

But it isn’t all bad news. The food pantry has also seen an outpouring of support, from tomatoes from Village Farms to monetary donations from residents.

A few weeks ago, Moeller said, a man stopped by to drop off a couple hundred dollars. It was an anonymous donation; he told Moeller he didn’t want credit.

Marfa is also seeing an increase in demand, said Genevieve Bassham, executive director of the local food pantry.

The pantry is now serving around 90 families, up from 84 last month, Bassham said. To handle the demand, the pantry announced this week it would start distributing food twice a month, on the first and third Thursdays of each month.

Still, “getting fresh food is challenging,” said Peggy O’Brien, the volunteer. “And it’s going to get more challenging.”

To help supplement deliveries from the West Texas Food Bank, the Marfa food pantry is ramping up produce in its garden, O’Brien said. She was getting ready to harvest a crop of garlic shoots and spinach.

In Presidio, the West Texas Food Bank runs a monthly food distribution program. “It’s our biggest distribution,” said Greg Clark, a senior manager at the West Texas Food Bank, which serves 19 counties.

On (typically) the last Friday of every month, the food bank takes an 18-wheeler, box truck and a few staff members down to the border city. There, they’re joined by typically around a dozen local volunteers.

Demand in Presidio has picked up “a little bit” during coronavirus, Clark said. The food bank is now serving around 420 Presidio families, compared to around 350 or 375 before the coronavirus crisis.

“It’s a lot of food,” Clark said. When cars line up to pick up boxes, “it looks like an old drive-in movie theater.”

Overall, the West Texas Food Bank has seen a 47 percent increase in demand, Clark said. But that still pales in comparison to demand increases in the Midland/Odessa area, where the West Texas Food Bank distributes locally — and where an oil shock and other economic woes have seen in-house food demand surge a whopping 400 percent.

The National Guard has sent 14 guardsmen to the facility to help with increase in orders, and the food bank is now sending around 3,000 prepackaged boxes of food every week to area pantries, Clark said.

Pantries in the tri-county area are doing a “super, super job” adjusting to the increased demand and other challenges, Clark added. “I couldn’t compliment them more.”

Asked about the reported shortage of fresh produce, Clark acknowledged there is “no consistency” as the food bank competes with stores like HEB and Walmart for produce trucks from the Rio Grande Valley. “We live in a produce desert,” he added.

Going forward, though, Clark said there will soon be more fresh produce going to local pantries.

“We’re blessed to be getting a lot of produce in,” he said. “But there may be a month or two when we just can’t get it.”

Coronavirus puts strain on local food pantries