Most days, the line of cars outside the El Pasoans Fighting Hunger Food Bank starts at its parking lot and continues about a half-mile down the road, past the stop sign at Plaza Circle and Avenue of the Americas, and onto Joe Battle Boulevard.
As the hours go by, the line doesn’t get shorter. Sometimes the waiting time can be up to two hours.
A year ago, helping all these families was easy as dozens of volunteers helped the food bank employees. Today, it is a struggle due to a lack of volunteers, according to food bank officials who are issuing a public appeal for volunteers to return.
“It’s very difficult to convince people to come back here,” said Lonnie Valencia, director of communications at the food bank. “Before COVID, we had a healthy volunteer staff. COVID hit, it destroyed everything we had for the program because no one could volunteer.”
A food bank has 70 to 80 employees at any one time, and it often depends on the funding available. To meet daily demand at America’s third-largest food bank, officials estimate that about 80 volunteers are needed per day. Recently, only a few volunteers have come. During one week in August, only 22 volunteers were scheduled.
Valencia said food bank needs have also increased with the recent influx of immigrants into the community.
The food bank has long partnered with churches and shelters such as the Annunciation House, which have been crowded with immigrants. Recently, staff and volunteers spent extra hours helping to feed those in the city’s immigrant processing center and prepare lunches for immigrants who were released on the streets downtown, according to Valencia.
He said, “No one should go hungry.” They are in our service area, often hungry and in need of food. We will feed them.”
Last year, the volunteer shortfall was eased by the Texas National Guard, which stepped in to help. Volunteers from AmeriCorps and the nonprofit organizations Get Shift Done, Team Rubicon and Workforce Solutions Borderplex have also been dispatched to help.
However, in August 2021, Governor Greg Abbott reassigned forces that had been assisting with the food bank in the Rio Grande Valley and surrounding areas to assist the Texas Department of Public Safety with his controversial border security initiative. By the end of September 2021, all troops had left the El Paso Food Bank.
since then. The food bank had to close one of its mega stores, cut hours at other locations and cancel programs. On August 23, the Food Bank’s First Food FARMacy program closed its doors until further notice. The older Food FARMacy was like a grocery store setting that catered to low-income seniors, serving 450 families per day.
High demand, lack of funding and a lack of volunteers, as well as high food prices, contributed to its closure. Staff had to travel longer distances and pay more for food and gas. The food shortage also caused the food bank to compete with others in the country for more money and resources.
“Without volunteers, it’s very difficult to keep moving forward,” Valencia said. “The younger employees we have now in the market are helping with emergency and delivery funds.”
The food bank is currently distributing food outside the facility Mercado-style, with people parking in the food bank’s parking lot, grabbing a shopping cart, queuing up and choosing a set number of items themselves.
“We didn’t have enough hands to be able to distribute prepackaged things and put them in the cars,” he said.
Food bank volunteers sort donations and packaging boxes and prepare food bags. The food bank buys food by the pound, and this food is unpackaged. One large bag of Apple Jacks towers over Valencia explaining the process.
“A lot of people think we have food already sorted when they buy it,” Valencia said. “But something like Apple Jacks comes without packaging. So, if we had the volunteers here, we would have boxing people, everyone had a station and they would put things in the box,” he said. “We usually have an employee who helps us as well.”
Inside the warehouse, a large room with large chests full of food donations from businesses and the community remains empty.
“We have one volunteer who comes in and sorts all of those,” he said. “But it definitely takes more than one person.”
The food bank also distributes food to churches and other cities and counties StoresValencia said.
Alfredo Ortega, the incoming president of St. Vincent de Paul’s Congregation of St. Luke’s Catholic Church, said volunteer numbers are healthy but not as demanding as a larger food bank.
Their pantry became a huge food storage site at the start of the pandemic when EPFH approached them with this idea. The food for the huge pantry comes mainly from El Pasoans Fighting Hunger.
“We don’t have an army of volunteers, but we have enough volunteers to get the job done,” Ortega said.
Officials in El Pasuan Fighting Hunger said an estimated 1,300 families come every day. Valencia said this far exceeds the numbers reflected before the pandemic, when about 400 families a week pick up food from the food bank and numbers of volunteers were healthy.
In 2019, the food bank served just over 55,500 families. The most recent data from 2021 shows that the food bank served more than 239,000 families.
On the afternoon of August 26, four volunteers and one staff member rushed back and forth to line up several shopping carts. The work never ends as the staff and volunteers monitor the tables and customers to make sure everyone takes the allowed amount and nothing more. Inside, about 10 volunteers prepared lunch boxes.
Susanna Peña, who has volunteered with EPFH for two years, said she stopped coming when the pandemic broke out in 2020. But with vaccinations starting and time running out, she decided it was time to give back.
“There were other things as well that kept us from going back,” Peña said. “It was hard sometimes because of family, life, work, school — things like that. It was just a matter of setting things up and prioritizing.”
Peña said her family used to help run large farms, but now helps out with other tasks. She and her three children volunteer for about three hours on Friday.
“I noticed this time that the number of people queuing and that demand has increased,” Peña said. “And from what I’ve seen, they (the food bank) need more volunteers to be able to provide service to the community.”
Carla, a mother of three, comes twice a month to get food for three families: her home, her sister, and her mother.
As she loaded her carts with boxes of strawberries, drinks, etc., her one-year-old daughter stuck tightly to an unopened container of strawberries. She inserted her little fingers into the plastic holes and dipped them in the strawberries, then licked the strawberry flavor off her fingers.
Carla lost her job in late 2019, then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Carla changed her grocery shopping habits. But since food prices have gone up, she and her family have turned to food vouchers and a food bank for help.
“We don’t buy brand names anymore,” Carla said while loading her SUV with food. “We also have fruit instead of chips. But my teens want french fries and soda. Sorry, I tell them we can’t anymore. They eat like there’s no tomorrow.”
Carla receives benefits from the SNAP Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. She said that feeding her daughter and boy was not enough.
“The benefits are pretty minimal, you know,” she said.
SNAP benefits It varies by family size and income: A family of four can receive up to $835 in groceries per month depending on their income. According to Texas Health and Human Services, approximately 140,900 people in El Paso were eligible for SNAP benefits in July, representing $19 million in SNAP payments — the sixth highest in the state. Harris County residents receive an estimated $91 million in SNAP payments, the largest in the state.
Officials with El Pasoans Fighting Hunger hope to secure enough volunteers to reopen Senior Food FARMacy.
Disclosure: Robert Moore, CEO of El Paso Matters, is a member of the Board of Directors of El Pasoans Fighting Hunger Food Bank.
How to help: El Pasoans fight hunger
to volunteerYou must be at least 16 years old and in good general health. You can volunteer as an individual or as a group. The food bank asks schools, district service groups, businesses, and corporations to lend a helping hand by scheduling a few hours of volunteer work with them.
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