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Thousands Of Cars Line Up At One Texas Food Bank As Job Losses Hit Hard

Apr 17, 2020
Originally published on April 17, 2020 6:30 pm

Ten thousand cars waited hours in line for emergency food aid in San Antonio last week. A drone photograph of the packed parking lot went viral. Two thousand more showed up for another distribution today.

These were some of the more than 20 million unemployed Americans, many of them recently laid off because of the pandemic.

The San Antonio Food Bank operates a huge, 200,000-square-foot warehouse on the outskirts of the city. It is stacked four stories high with apples, oranges and watermelons; potatoes, tomatoes and onions; chicken, ground beef and tater tots.

A quartet of forklifts—working like soldier ants—fills a truck with pallets of carrots, while the boss watches.

Eric Cooper is CEO of the San Antonio Food Bank, which has experienced 100 percent more clients because of the pandemic and not enough donations to keep up.
John Burnett / NPR

"We stock refrigerated, frozen and nonperishable food items so it moves through our facility at a fairly rapid pace," said food bank CEO Eric Cooper. "Obviously, now in the midst of COVID-19, the demand far outpaces the supply."

In addition to feeding the hungry in this city of more than 2 million souls, the food bank supplies 500 food pantries throughout South Texas. In a normal week, the food bank feeds about 60,000 people in its region. Today, that number has doubled.

Last week, they knew they'd be busy. A record 6,000 families had preregistered for food distribution at a flea market parking lot. When word got out on social media, 4,000 more cars showed up.

"I panicked. I've never seen a line that long," Cooper said. "So I called our warehouse to send more trucks, to get more food on site. But we, in the end, served 10,000 families."

Cooper estimates half of the people coming to the food bank these days are first-timers. They are mothers like Erica Campos, a 42-year-old bank employee with two young daughters at home.

Erica Campos says she initially felt ashamed driving up to the food bank in her used Cadillac, but "there's no shame in feeding my children."
John Burnett / NPR

She had been doing okay. Her job is stable. She even bought a home late last year. But she really depended on $1,200 a month in child support from her ex-husband. Then he lost his job as a hotel concierge because of the coronavirus shutdown, and his checks stopped. Campos could no longer make ends meet.

"I never, ever could have even imagined anything like this," she said. Campos drives a nice car and wears stylish eyeglasses over her facemask.

"I was almost ashamed, to be honest, to even pick up food from the food bank because somebody might look at my used Cadillac and be like, 'What is she doing in the food bank line?' But I had to get past those feelings of shame. There's no shame in feeding my children."

With other natural disasters, you might expect to see regional hardship and strained food banks, but the economic cataclysm that has followed coronavirus has spread out the suffering around the globe.

Francisco Ramirez loads a pallet of carrots into a tractor-trailer to deliver to hungry South Texans, many of whom have lost jobs because of the pandemic.
John Burnett / NPR

"What we're seeing at the San Antonio Food Bank, Feeding America food banks are seeing all over the country," said that group's spokesperson Zaina Villareal. Feeding America is a network of 200 food banks nationwide, including San Antonio's.

"The pandemic is showing the fragility of families' household budgets," she added. "With one lost paycheck, many families are figuring out how to put food on the table."

On Friday morning, the San Antonio Food Bank set up another pop-up distribution center in the Alamodome parking lot. By the time they started handing out bags of groceries, more than two thousand cars were waiting in line and some drivers had waited all night.

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