Food Banks Face Pressure Under Covid-19

Thursday, March 19th 2020

With schools and other public spaces closed, many food insecure Texans are cut off from a source of healthy meals. Usually people can turn to the Central Texas Food Bank for assistance—they serve roughly 50,000 people across more than 20 counties. But the Covid-19 outbreak has impacted their supply chain, their means of distributing food and their volunteers. Decibel's Judy Maggio talks with Central Texas Food Bank CEO Derrick Chubbs about the challenges their organization faces, and what people can do to help.


Judy Maggio: First, Derrick, I wanna know the scope of your mission because I don't think people realize in general how many people really depend on the food bank for nutrition throughout the year really.

Derrick Chubbs: You know, we are the largest hunger relief agency in Central Texas, Judy. We cover 21 counties. It's an area twice the size of the state of Massachusetts and during a normal week through a network of about 250 partner agencies, we distribute food to approximately 46 to 50,000 Central Texans.

JM: How has Covid-19 as a pandemic impacted the distribution of your food and how you operate so far?

DC: Aside from the fact that it is moving, as we know this exercise has been very fluid from the number of individuals that can convene together to yesterday's closures of restaurants. But my first exercise was to try and do everything I could to create an environment that minimizes the risk for our workforce. The first order was to try to make sure that I minimize the risk for the team. The second came from basically how we distribute our food and that is changing dramatically.

And where I think we'll need to be is a model that allows us to do a bit of a drop-and-go. By that I mean package the food, have the food pre-packaged so we can drop it off, and we're having conversations with our partner agencies today to see if ultimately we can get through a drive-through model to minimize as much direct contact as we possibly can.

JM: I know that people feel a little bit helpless right now and they want to help. What help do you need? What can the average person in Central Texas provide to your organization so they can help their neighbors in need?

DC: To add a little backdrop and a bit of context to this, we depend heavily on donations from our retail grocers. About 65 percent of what we distribute is actually donated food. Well, we've all seen the shelves, and we know the shelves are empty at our retail grocers now, so they don't have food to donate to us. So what we are having to do is purchase food. Now, we can take a dollar and turn it into four meals. So, I would say, one of the things we need now is financial donations to enable us to purchase more food and that only for the core group of 46 to 50,000 because of less supply being donated. But for the increased numbers that we know we're going to see, that we're already seeing, as restaurants close and schools close and those are friends and neighbors that are working diligently there that may end up in our lines as well.

The second piece is we still need volunteers. We are open for business and we are developing models where we have fewer volunteers, so we can exercise social distancing. So where we accommodate or would likely accommodate 120 volunteers per shift, we've gotten that down to around 40. Thank goodness, thank the mayor for allowing us to be in the classification that would allow us to continue to focus on CDC guidelines, but we're doing two shifts of 20 to keep them separated and we can exercise social distancing that way as well. So we still need volunteers, and just simply go to, like always, go to centraltexasfoodbank.org and sign up.

JM: I know that people are, especially as we find more and more of us working from home, like we are at Austin PBS. They wanna give back to the community, but they're also concerned about being exposed to other people. So, you talked about the social distancing, what would people actually be doing if they came to your organization to volunteer?

DC: What we're doing now is packaging emergency food boxes. Of course, we have the food out, we have the boxes, boxes that we're having to purchase, by the way, which is not something that we normally do. And we have them on the assembly line and they literally are adding food into a box, as it goes down the line. And we have them separated so that they're around five or six feet apart from each other. Even when we're giving them their orientation, we have them separated while we're even going through the orientation, so right now our sole focus, Judy, is building emergency food boxes.

We're building them on site, we've been fortunate enough to have a couple of faith-based organizations set up inside the churches, since they're not necessarily having services and we're dropping off food to them. They're building them for us. But we will have to get to the point where we can distribute around 25,000 of those every week, just on our mobile pantries, we're not even taking into account our partner agencies. So, we need to get up to about 100,000 of those really quickly within the next week.

JM: I like the idea of reaching out to the faith groups because a lot of these churches and people of faith are trying to give back and they can't gather for a worship service, but this would be a way they could gather and continue whatever mission their faith dictates to help their neighbors in need.

DC: Yes, as we're having this conversation, we have two locations that are building emergency food boxes for us and at the end of the day we'll have another 1,200 of them, 1,200 boxes. So that is very important to us that we're able to build offsite and we're adding more as time progresses. We have to go out and evaluate the site, because it's food, we have to make sure that it's safe. We have to make sure that we're set up and that they understand that we're trying to honor social distancing even with them. So I feel pretty confident and excited that community is stepping up. The other part of that is we definitely are going to need the financial donations, so we can continue to buy more food, because that's just who we are.

JM: Let's just go over one more time, Derrick, where people can find the information they need if they wanna help the Central Texas Food Bank.

DC: I want to make sure that everyone understands where they can find food. And that's very important. So if you go to our website, the very first thing that's going to pop up is a button, it says Find Food Now. You press that button, a map literally comes up in front of you, you enter your ZIP code and every place in our 21 counties where we're distributing food, it will be referenced. And you enter your ZIP code and all the partner agencies, mobile pantries and channels of distribution that we're using in that ZIP code will pop up. It will also tell you whether it's hot food, whether it's groceries, and their hours of operation. That's one, and I want your audience to know how they can get food, because this is very important and that's our mission.

The second piece, from the same website, you can also make a financial donation and you can also volunteer. So, those are the things that I want the community to know: how to get food and the other component is how to help us.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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