One of El Paso’s largest food distribution sites will close and others will reduce hours despite the amplified need for food due to the pandemic, officials said, citing a lack of manpower.
“We’re still able to manage all of the logistics, the trucking, finding the food, getting it brought to El Paso and to the sites. But at the sites, we do not have the manpower to distribute food to the people in line,” said Susan Goodell CEO of El Pasoans Fighting Hunger, the area’s sole food bank.
The Northeast food mega-pantry at Nolan Richardson Recreation Center closed on Wednesday, Goodell said.
“Unless we get additional, significant amounts of manpower, or the financial resources to hire people, the Northeast site will be permanently closed,” she said.
“It’s going to take a lot of hands to fill in for the National Guard, Get Shift Done and other groups that are no longer with the food bank,” she said.
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Until this last week, El Pasoans Fighting Hunger operated four “mega-pantries,” which provide food for up to a week for hundreds of thousands food-insecure families. The mega-pantries are open five days a week, for a minimum of five hours a day, unlike many of the smaller pantries, soup kitchens and shelters the food bank provides food for.
Goodell said the food bank has relied on various groups, such as the Texas National Guard, AmeriCorps and nonprofits such as Team Rubicon, Get Shift Done and Workforce Solutions Borderplex, since other volunteer groups dried up during the pandemic.
Those groups provided “hundreds of volunteers” to assist the food bank through the pandemic. Now the Texas National Guard will pull out of El Paso next week due to an ending of federal reimbursement, Goodell said, leaving 70 staff and 15 AmeriCorps, and a much smaller volunteer pool to hand out food.
“There is an option for any state to pick up the cost of the National Guard being called out, but I think that’s highly unlikely in Texas,” Goodell said.
The Texas Military Department did not respond to emailed questions about the drawdown of Texas National Guard in El Paso.
“Every time we lose a major source of support, one of these groups that comes in and provides manpower to us, we’ve been putting a band-aid on the problem,” Goodell said. “We’re running out of band-aids.”
The other changes included reduced hours at the food bank sites and handing over operation of a site, starting Monday.
- The El Pasoans Fighting Hunger headquarters on Plaza Circle will change hours starting Monday, Aug. 9, operating on weekdays only from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
- El Pasoans Fighting Hunger will no longer operate at the Horizon Boulevard food pantry located at Holy Spirit Church; however, food will be distributed by church members starting Wednesday, Aug. 11 from 6 to 8 p.m.
- El Pasoans Fighting Hunger Western distribution site on Doniphan Road will open an hour and a half later, operating weekdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
El Pasoans Fighting Hunger also distributes food to 132 partners in El Paso, Culberson and Hudspeth counties, according to the website. The food bank is relatively young, turning 5 years old last month, but Goodell said the two years have put an unprecedented amount of strain on the food bank.
In 2019, the food bank gave away more than 32 million pounds of food. In 2020, that exploded to 139 million pounds given away, since people were looking for support through job losses, illness and other factors during the pandemic.
“We are at 20% of the manpower a food bank of our size should have,” she said.
She said the food bank is working to fill the gap, aiming to recruit 100 volunteers, but there’s been a shortage of the typical groups that produce volunteers: retirees, school groups and local company shifts.
She said volunteers and monetary donations are just some of the ways El Pasoans can help.
“We need people to advocate for continued government support, not only at this food bank, but every food bank across the country,” she said. “The best way for people to do that is to talk to their national, state and local officials.”
Beyond the big distributors, smaller food pantries are concerned that a lack of volunteers and bigger demands will stretch them even further.
Sara Molina, the food pantry director at Kelly Center for Hunger Relief, is a smaller pantry which receives all its food through El Pasoans Fighting Hunger, said they’ve struggled for volunteers since last July.
“We always need volunteers, always,” Molina said.
Molina said she doesn’t know how much demand might shift to their site. She said demand remains double compared to before the pandemic.
“Our busiest day would be at the beginning of the month; we’d see 360 families. After the pandemic, we were seeing about 1,000 families a day,” Molina said. “Now we see between 500 to 600 families Tuesday through Saturday.”
Molina said their site would continue to operate from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Friday.
Eddie Lopez, 59, is a retired school teacher and volunteered at different distribution centers during the pandemic. He started at Kelly Center for Hunger Relief about eight months ago, saying he needed to get out of the house.
“You really do get a sense of getting involved in the community,” Lopez said. “It’s really important that everyone give back a little bit, because we have a lot to be thankful for.”
Goodell said she does not see a decrease in food needs in the region for the foreseeable future.
“I don’t see the numbers dropping too much in the coming two years, I think there’s a long recovery for people who’ve lost their jobs, they’re going to need food bags until they can get back up on their feet,” she said.
Cover photo: A member of the National Guard works at the El Pasoans Fighting Hunger headquarters on May 5, 2020. Programs that made National Guard personnel available to staff food banks are ending, forcing EPFH to close or reduce the hours at several food distribution sites. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)
Disclosure: El Paso Matters CEO Robert Moore is on the board of directors of El Pasoans Fighting Hunger.