Members of the National Guard assist in loading food into vehicles at the El Pasoans Fighting Hunger food bank on Tuesday, May 5, 2020. EPFH is serving approximately 7,000 to 8,000 families per day throughout the El Paso area. (Corrie Boudreaux/ El Paso Matters)

As the number of El Pasoans filing unemployment claims continues to rise, there is another number rising, too — people in need of food.

Thousands of people from the Upper Valley to the Lower Valley get in line once or twice per week, picking up boxes of food offered through the El Pasoans Fighting Hunger Food Bank, located at 9541 Plaza Circle, or other food bank-sponsored sites. Many of these people have lost their low- to middle-income jobs due to the coronavirus outbreak and the concurrent economic fallout.

Susan Goodell, chief executive officer of El Pasoans Fighting Hunger, said the numbers of people coming to get food have gone up dramatically since COVID-19 started impacting El Paso.

A volunteer directs traffic at the intersection of Pan American and Plaza Circle as vehicles line up to receive food at the El Pasoans Fighting Hunger food bank on Tuesday, May 5, 2020. Traffic has been rerouted around Pan American to Carl Longuemare Road due to the increase in long lines. (Corrie Boudreaux/ El Paso Matters)

“As of May 5, over 200,000 boxes of food have been distributed in El Paso County at five distribution sites,” Goodell said. “All five sites are run effectively through the food bank but these locations are selected by the food bank itself. We bring in food from other parts of the nation, coming into El Paso on the back of tractor-trailer trucks. We’re giving away 14 tractor-trailers of food per day, which is four times the amount we were giving out pre-COVID-19.”

Katie’s Pantry, located at 4801 Sun Valley in Northeast El Paso; the El Pasoans Fighting Hunger Food Bank in Southeast El Paso; Kelly Center for Hunger Relief, located at 915 N. Florence, in Central El Paso; Abundant Living Faith Center, located at 7100 N. Desert Blvd., in West El Paso; and Bill Childress Elementary School, located at 7700 Cap Carter Road, in Far West El Paso/Vinton make up the five food bank-sponsored distribution sites.

“Right now, we are giving out 6,000-7,000 boxes of food Monday through Friday at five sites,” Goodell said.

Jared Nieman, lead pastor of Abundant Living Faith Center’s West Campus, said the church has given out more than 24,000 boxes of food and is averaging more than 1,000 boxes per day.

“Our food giveaways are open to anyone in the area on a first-come, first-served basis,” Nieman said.

A timeline of support

“The food bank has been following all of the conversations on COVID-19 and how it was affecting our sister food bank in Seattle,” Goodell said. “The El Pasoans Fighting Hunger Food Bank feeds 140,000 people every day and that’s pretty remarkable, especially for such a young food bank (four years old) as ours. Most food banks are 15-16 years old in cities the size of El Paso.

“This is our fourth disaster in El Paso in the past 14 months,” she said. “This young food bank has gone above and beyond to help out. Because of our youth, we’re not always seen by a lot of people.”

On March 13, Goodell said the city of El Paso closed 12 senior centers “so it created an urgently needed situation” regarding food for those residents, Goodell said. On March 16, El Paso County closed the eight remaining senior centers. 

Workers at the El Pasoans Fighting Hunger food bank package loose beets on Tuesday, May 5, 2020. Due to disruptions in transportation and packaging services, EPFH workers receive and package loose produce on site. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

“Sometimes, these centers were the only places that some seniors got one meal per day,” she said, “so we started working with the city to do food distribution at those sites and by March 17, we were distributing food at those centers.”

She said on March 19, the food bank started organizing food distribution at its own parking lot.  On April 7, the food bank reached out to the National Guard for help and more than 100 Guardsmen have been involved with food distribution since that day. Hundreds of volunteers also have helped prepare and distribute food boxes.

Additional help has come through Workforce Solutions Borderplex with 40 paid interns; Get Shift Done with 40 restaurant workers who lost their jobs because of COVID-19 helping out and being paid by the El Paso Community Foundation; seven corps fellows from AmeriCorps; and 25 food bank staffers.

Why people keep coming to get food

When asked how much longer she thinks this type of community outreach will be needed to the El Paso community, Goodell said it’s very difficult to predict the future.

“One of the things we’ve seen are people keep coming to the food bank because so many people have lost their jobs,” she said. “With so many low- to middle-income jobs gone, it would not be a surprise to see this level of giving out food continuing for the next 6-9 months. That’s my guess.”

She does hope once the COVID-19 situation has passed that “people realize it’s important to help meet the need for a strong food bank not only in bad times but others as well.”

“I also hope for people who normally have jobs that this experience is remembered when they get their jobs back and will remember those who aren’t in the same place,” Goodell said.

How to help

El Pasoans Fighting Hunger relies heavily on donations and volunteers to feed those in need. The organization says it can provide seven meals for each $1 donation.Financial contributions can be made through the El Pasoans Fighting Hunger website. You can also volunteer your time.

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Cover photo: Members of the National Guard assist in loading food into vehicles at the El Pasoans Fighting Hunger food bank on Tuesday, May 5, 2020. EPFH is serving approximately 7,000 to 8,000 families per day throughout the El Paso area. (Corrie Boudreaux/ El Paso Matters)

Joe Rutland is a freelance journalist who lives in El Paso. He's a former assistant city editor with The El Paso Times and has worked for newspapers in Texas and Arizona as a reporter, columnist, and copy...