The Access Desert: How Covid-19 Magnifies Food Insecurity

Wednesday, June 24th 2020

“Oh, it smells so good,” Diedre Leban said. She’s unboxing her latest produce delivery, and she’s pretty pleased with what she’s been surprised with today.

“Parsley, fresh pasta,” Leban said. “You know how [on the] food channel, they have a surprise box for cooking? This is my surprise box. And so you just do kind of like an Iron Chef, like figure it out.”

Recipes aren’t the only things Liban has had to figure out lately. Like so many Texans, Covid-19 has made getting food more complicated for her. Since she doesn’t have a car, Leban is reliant on CapMetro to get to the grocery store, which has been operating at reduced capacity since March. And even though the CapMetro has added new cleaning procedures and social distancing measures, there is still a risk of infection.

“If you schedule yourself to make groceries in an hours’ time at the grocery store, and then you have to make sure you get back to the bus stop on time to catch the bus, or you gotta sit there another hour to catch the bus home,” Leban said.

Covid-19 has exacerbated an issue that’s been around for years—food insecurity. Before the pandemic, one in seven Texans did not have consistent access to food. But layoffs and furloughs have increased demand at places like the Central Texas Food Bank.

“Those are clients coming to us for the first time saying, ‘I've never been here before,’” said Derrick Chubbs, CEO of the Central Texas Food Bank.

Chubbs is well acquainted with the issues of food access in the Austin area. Before Covid-19 hit, Chubbs estimated the food bank was servicing roughly 50,000 people every week. But from March to April this year the agency saw a 45 percent uptick in need across the 21 counties they serve.

“If I narrow it down to Travis County...we saw a 200 percent increase in new clients,” Chubbs said.

Programs have sprung up across the state to help those in need. The Austin Independent School District is offering meals to children under 19 and caretakers through the summer, and Governor Greg Abbott extended the emergency Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits through June.

But despite the expanded efforts, some families and individuals still fall through the cracks. Transportation can be a major barrier for people seeking food assistance. An analysis of census data by the nonprofit Children At Risk shows that families at high risk for food insecurity may not have access to a car.

It’s certainly complicated things for Leban. While the Austin Housing Authority is offering food delivery services for those 60 and older, Leban finds herself just shy of the age range.

“You have to find a program that can help you,” Leban said. “So if you don't have a friend with a car, you can't even go through drive-throughs to get what you need.”

Fortunately for Liban, she had been connected with local non-profit Go! Austin/Vamos! Austin, or GAVA, before Covid-19 hit. Part of GAVA’s mission is tackling food inequality, and in the last few months their mission has become even more critical.

“A lot of the communities we work with have been disproportionately hit by Covid-19,” said Carmen Pulido, the executive director of GAVA. She points out that many of their clients have either found themselves working in high-risk situations, financially in peril or both.

“We go back to access to resources,” said Joelynn Avendano, GAVA’s organizing manager. “So if you get the stimulus check, do you pay your rent or do you get food?”

In an effort to address those issues, GAVA retooled a food delivery program already in place. Working with Urban Roots and Farmshare, GAVA started a pay-what-you-can pilot program for fresh produce delivery, focusing on areas where grocery stores are hard to reach. The current pandemic forced GAVA to shift gears in order to meet new needs.

“We had to kind of adapt a lot of our previous deliverables to make it happen.” Avendano said. “And we started seeing how folks were coming together and even sponsoring each other....neighbors were coming together and, like, I'll pay for my neighbor.”

While groups like GAVA and the Central Texas Food Bank have worked to meet current demands, most non-profits are bracing for increased demand through the summer. Spikes in Covid-19 cases across the state have everyone waiting to see if Governor Abbott will ask businesses to close again, while the risk increases for frontline workers. There are also concerns about the Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP loans, ending soon.

“There are some external or economic factors that we have to take into play,” Chubbs said. “We also have our friends and neighbors who have been fortunate enough to receive either stimulus or employment checks there. We're planning for that to potentially end, you know, sometime toward the end of June.”

For her part, Leban has been bolstered by the support she's both given and received during the pandemic. She has shared her home with family during this crisis and has seen neighbors reach out to help her in turn. It’s her hope that if people need help, they’ll seek it out.

“I just want people to know there's plenty of programs out there,” Leban said. “And if you don't have somebody to love you, reach out to somebody and call them and say, I just need to talk. Don’t go through this by yourself.”

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