With an increase in demand for food assistance and decrease in food donations and volunteers, the COVID-19 pandemic has created the “perfect storm” to amplify the hunger crisis in East Texas. But that has not stopped the East Texas Food Bank from continuing its mission to fight hunger and feed hope during the pandemic. Established in 1988, the East Texas Food Bank is the largest hunger-relief nonprofit in East Texas, covering 26 counties. The East Texas Food Bank works to feed East Texans through a network of more than 200 food pantries and feeding programs, as well as strengthening families by providing nutrition education and benefits assistance.
“The East Texas Food Bank and our food pantries and feeding programs have continued to be on the frontlines ensuring our hungry neighbors have access to the food they need during this difficult time,” said East Texas Food Bank CEO Dennis Cullinane. “Based on data from Feeding America, we’re predicting that 40 percent of the families we are serving are receiving food assistance for the first time ever. There are so many East Texans who have done everything by the book, but still find themselves in need of help.”
Due to the pandemic, Feeding America is projecting that nearly one in four East Texans, including one in three children, are facing hunger. The food insecurity rate increased to 22 percent, which is up from 17 percent in 2018. The child food insecurity rate rose ten points to 35 percent in just two years. That means 282,530 East Texans are facing hunger. The East Texas Food Bank’s COVID response supports those numbers. From March-June, the agency provided more than nine million meals to over 46,000 families. Meals distributed increased 33 percent and families served increased 74 percent compared to 2019.
The meals support working families that have been hit by the pandemic, like David’s. David has a wife and three children and recently attended a produce distribution. David said he feels “just like everyone else right now.” David is currently furloughed, and his wife just started back at work after being furloughed for two months. “We are doing okay but really feeling the effects of everything going on,” he told us. David was grateful to receive the fresh produce and said that nutritious food is especially important, and his family tries to maintain a healthy, active lifestyle.
ETFB has also seen an increased need from seniors who were already having to make the hard choice between paying for the electricity bill, buying their medicine, or purchasing groceries. One example is 63-year-old Michael, who takes care of his 93-year-old mother, who has dementia. Before the pandemic, Michael was already on disability and had a compromised immune system. He was not able to safely get out to a food pantry, so he had an emergency food box delivered to his house. When talking about the East Texas Food Bank, Michael said, “Basically what y’all are doing is keeping people going. I know there are worse people off than us, but if we didn’t get that box, we probably wouldn’t have anything.”
To respond to the pandemic, the East Texas Food Bank immediately changed its service model. Partner agencies that were able to stay open started operating as drive-thru pantries. The production line stopped building items for the in-school programs and packed over 51,000 emergency food boxes with non-perishable items. The Benefits Assistance Program and Nutrition Education Department began conducting their programs online. To help with the extra demand, 34 Texas Army National Guardsmen were deployed to the East Texas Food Bank. “Our hunger-relief work is far from over, but we know that because of our generous community members, we’ll be able to keep providing meals for our hungry neighbors like David and Michael. Our hungry neighbors are going to be feeling the effects of the pandemic for months to come and our work would not be possible without our community’s support,” Cullinane said.
Cullinane encourages the community to join their fight against hunger during Hunger Action Month in September, a nationwide push to get communities involved with the hunger crisis across the country. While it may look different this year without large in-person events, there are still ways every East Texan can join the fight.
Donate. The East Texas Food Bank is not possible without financial support from the community. Every $1 donated can provide up to 8 meals for East Texas children, families, and seniors in need. More than 96 cents of every dollar in revenue and support goes directly toward programs.
Host a Virtual Food Drive. Any organization, business or group can host a virtual food drive to benefit the East Texas Food Bank through a custom Virtual Food Drive fundraising page. Virtual Food Drives raise dollars instead of cans, which helps the East Texas Food Bank provide even more food for hungry East Texans. For example, $10 at a grocery store can purchase ten cans, to provide roughly eight meals. However, that same $10 when given to the East Texas Food Bank directly can provide up to 80 meals.
Volunteer. The Volunteer Center is open to small groups by appointment only. The East Texas Food Bank has implemented multiple new procedures to keep staff and volunteers safe. Any volunteer over eight-years-old is welcome to come and donate their time. Shifts include sorting, inspecting, packing, and loading donated food items, repackaging bulk products, assembling food boxes, and more.
“When you support the East Texas Food Bank, you are joining an army of hunger heroes, and helping to ensure that children, families and seniors throughout East Texas have access to the nutritious food they need to thrive. While the fight against hunger is ongoing, together, we can feed hope for our neighbors in need,” Cullinane said.
Visit www.easttexasfoodbank.org to join the fight against hunger, or call 903-597-3663.