It’s a Rorschach test for our difficult times. What do you see in this picture ?:
Wednesday morning, just before 8 a.m. Three hundred or so vehicles in a high school parking lot that should be in session but not.
For some, the image expanded to show the Central Texas Food Bank trucks and volunteers is a picture of despair as hungry households lined up for a 28-pound box of shelf-stable groceries and toiletries.
But maybe it really is a picture of hope, a picture of neighbors helping neighbors they don’t know. The distribution of the food began at 9 a.m. and continued until after noon. Some of the vehicles showed up two hours earlier.
The people you meet and the stories you hear on a food line: some are there for themselves. Some are there for their families. Some are there for others.
Some are there for lunch on Wednesday.
I got there around 8 a.m. By then, Derrick Chubbs, CEO and President of the grocery bank, and the army of volunteers had already perfected the parking lot choreography that would efficiently move hundreds of vehicles through the grocery lines.
“Yeah,” he said when we looked through the early comers, “that’s pretty much been the trend for the past few weeks when people are just lined up.”
Thanks to the “generosity and support of the community”, the food bank was able to meet the 200 percent increase in demand in recent weeks. That’s more than the usual 50,000 families a week the food bank was serving before the pandemic.
How much longer can it take? Frequent question, said Chubbs.
“Our resources are being used to a point we have never seen before,” he said, adding, “We are now more concerned with sourcing food than we can actually distribute it.”
“We are heavily dependent on donated products. And we’ve seen all of the grocery stores and what their shelves look like. If their shelves are missing, they don’t donate the food.”
As the lines continued to grow, Chubbs recognized the challenging reality of our time: “There are people here who never thought they would be here.”
Like Marcus Miller, 49, who sat among those behind the wheel waiting for the leash to move.
“Hold on,” he said when I asked how it was going.
That’s not bad for a former heating and air-conditioning technician who has been unemployed since February. He has two grown children and six grandchildren and lives alone. He has applied for unemployment benefits and is waiting for it.
Miller spends his day surfing the internet looking for work.
About a couple of hours after getting in line, Miller was loading groceries into his trunk. He smiled when I saw him pull back – smiled through adversity that was unpredictable a few months ago.
Pat James was also early in line. He is 55 and still working, but has turned up to get food for his mother who has Alzheimer’s.
“Never in a million years,” he said when I asked if he thought he would ever see anything like it. “It’s crazy right now.”
We both agreed that many of us went through challenges that put our lives on.
“Well,” said James, “but the thing about it is you don’t know when it’s going to end.”
Willie Whitley sat behind the wheel, waiting in line. He told me what was happening in that parking lot was “very, very, very, very important” to him. It turned out that what matters for lunch was important. Whitley, 50, lost his job in a downtown restaurant two weeks ago.
“It was hard,” he said, “and I had no food. Just no food.”
He is a single parent and has four children at home.
“I’m just trying to make it,” said Whitley, “day after day. That’s why I’m here.”
Some of the food he got on Wednesday will go to the pantry. But the need was immediate.
“I’ll eat it right away,” he said. “Whatever you have. I’m just tired of eating beans and rice. I can explain all of the different ways you can make beans and rice.”
If not for what he got from the grocery bank, what would be on his menu today?
“That’s a good question,” he said.
And he had a good question for me: “How long will it take?”
I don’t know, I said to him, “Or how it ends.”
“‘Right,” he said, “exactly.”
I promised myself on Wednesday that I wouldn’t get political with anyone in line. So I just listened as Whitley vented.
“Didn’t the President know this happened and he’s telling us about it?” he said. “It had to be a long time ago. And now he’s just telling us about it? People are dying. I just think the government should let us know what’s going on. Do you know what I mean?”
Yes, there is a lot to unzip there. But I won’t do it now.
“My kids, they are fed up with ramen noodles and the like,” Whitley told me. “And I also take care of grandchildren.”
Despite the desperation that reigned in many of the row’s vehicles, Texas Longhorn soccer coach Tom Herman and his wife Michelle were among those who saw hope in that parking lot. The Hermans (not related to me as best I can tell) smiled and chatted with people as they handed out boxes. Let the record show that I saw the trainer hit his head on a trunk lid, but I saw no immediate need to put him on the concussion log.
“Look at all of these cars,” said the coach. “This is amazing what the food bank is doing and helping so many people survive. And we’re happy to help.”
And you should be happy to donate to something that does so much for so many.
A few rows down, and masked like most people, Karen Draper told me she was picking up food for a group house in South Austin that housed eight “mentally retarded” men, including her brother. She spoke about the particular challenges the pandemic poses for these men.
“There are a couple or three men who work,” she said in front of the group’s house. “Now they are completely isolated and cannot.”
“It’s tremendous,” she said of the challenge of breaking men’s routines, “because they’re routine. And it’s very difficult for them to change the way they think on a daily basis. It completely changes their schedule. ” “”
Draper said it’s difficult, if not impossible, to explain what’s going on. Why, I thought, should it be any different for these men than for the rest of us?
“There’s a gentleman who keeps asking, ‘When will this be over? When will this be over?'” She said.
I ended my chat with Draper with the Rorschach test. Was what was going on in the high school parking lot that morning, a depressing snapshot of the daunting challenge we face, or a hopeful picture of a community banding together and getting up to meet the challenge.
Draper didn’t skip a beat before responding, “It’s so hopeful that people are volunteering.”
When it was over, Chubbs told me that 1,545 households had been provided with boxes of groceries. Sounds pretty successful, I said.
“Oh yes,” he told me. “Whenever we feed one who is having a successful day.”
The scene will repeat on Monday at Del Valle High School starting at 9 a.m. However, you can be sure that the line will form well in advance.