Austin families navigate food insecurity inflicted by Covid-19

Jacylin Moya and her mother woke up early Saturday morning to do something they had never done before – go to a ride at the Central Texas Food Bank. With a line of cars ahead, they waited in their car until 8am when it was time to pull up and pick up their box of groceries.

The pandemic has created an overwhelming number of pitfalls for families to navigate through, and unemployment and food insecurity have plagued thousands of them. In August alone, the Central Texas Food Bank served 112,000 households in its 21 county service area, which is more than 350,000 people, said Paul Gaither, spokesman for the food bank. Of these households, more than 18,000 were using CTFB services for the first time, around 16 percent of the total.

In addition to grocery brands (SNAP), local resources like CTFB and UT Austin’s food bank UT Outpost have seen a surge in customers since the Austin pandemic.

“When the Travis County’s Covid-19 stay at home order came in, we had to quickly change our model knowing that food insecurity does not affect a pandemic,” said Will Ross, UT’s UT Outpost coordinator. “If anything, (the pandemic) reinforces that need.”

For Moya and her family, who are members of the local Puerto Rican and Mexican communities, unemployment has been the main cause of their food insecurity. Moya said they intend to share their grocery box with other family members who have been unable to get to the grocery ride due to labor disputes or lack of transportation.

Moya and her mother tried to explore other resources like food stamps or meals on wheels. However, they either received almost worthless services or were rejected due to admission requirements.

“Right now, because of the pandemic, we see the driving force behind food insecurity in Austin in people being unemployed or having their hours reduced,” Gaither said.

Before the pandemic, about two-thirds of CTFB’s customers were employed. Gaither said many were part of the “working poor” because they had jobs but did not earn enough to put food on the table.

According to the Texas Workforce Commission, more than 70,000 workers in the Austin metropolitan area were unemployed as of August, twice the number a year earlier. While employers in the metropolitan area created nearly 20,000 jobs in August, local payrolls remained nearly 30,000 below August 2019 levels – a 2.7 percent decline in a region that had regularly increased 3 and 4 percent .

Prior to Covid-19, Gaither said CTFB served about 46,000 customers per week, or 184,000 per month. On average, the monthly number has doubled since the beginning of the pandemic.

Areas in the United States that were already high food insecurity will continue to have the highest rates in the country amid the pandemic, according to a May report by Feeding America. The state with the highest 2020 food insecurity forecast for the total population due to Covid-19 is California with a total of 6.4 million residents. For children, Texas is the state with the highest projection with 2.3 million children with unsafe diets.

While Covid-19 may have exacerbated the food insecurity issue in Austin and nationally, CTFB has so far been able to accommodate all of its customers.

“The biggest change was reinventing the way we do business,” said Gaither. “There have been interruptions in the supply chain due to bottlenecks in certain items because the whole country is competing for the same resources.”

This left the food bank with no choice but to buy its own supplies and seek more cash donations to offset the sharp drop in food donations, Gaither said.

“Our top priority remains ensuring that eligible Texans and their families have access to healthy, nutritious foods and the systems that support them,” said Elliott Sprehe, press secretary for the Texas Health & Human Services Commission, in a statement. To achieve this, Sprehe said the commission made the SNAP benefits more accessible by simplifying the process of determining eligibility.

For families in disproportionately affected communities in Austin, such as the black or Latin American population, the use of SNAP and other resources can be almost impossible due to a lack of transport or internet access, as KUT reported in April. Families with an undocumented member may even be afraid to use these resources. And meals that need to be picked up, especially for families seeking school lunches during the pandemic, may be more of a problem than a solution for some.

“The city is way behind the times when it comes to culturally responding to its various constituents,” said Angela Valenzuela, professor in the Department of Educational Leadership at UT Austin. Valenzuela noted that the city does not always provide resources in Spanish, while other resources may require internet access or computer access.

The food insecurity dilemma caught up with Austin Mayor Steve Adler and has begun to look for ways to resolve it.

“We have received a certain amount of resources from the federal government that do not even come close to meeting the needs of the community,” said Adler. “There is no good choice here. … Any choice is bad for the people you leave out. “

One step the city took was to offer food and housing assistance to everyone in the community during the pandemic without asking for a social security number, Adler said. Currently, CTFB is a resource that most households have with few restrictions.

“The bank, our employees and our volunteers do everything to make people feel very comfortable in the situation. And we actually thank them for coming out and getting food from us, ”said Gaither. “We are doing everything we can to remove the stigma that some people might have. Because there is no shame in this situation … if you need help, help should be given. “

With the pandemic far from over, Moya and her family understand that there are others who are even more in need than they are. “My mother taught me not to be greedy and only get what you need when you are in need,” said Moya. “That’s why we feel okay today, because we’re in need.”

This story was written by a journalism student at the University of Texas at Austin. The Austin Monitor works with the UT School of Journalism to teach and publish stories created by students on the city and county government reporting course.

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