Despite the long lines outside the area’s only food bank, officials there said they will consider cutting more programs and continue current closures if they don’t receive additional funds and more volunteers.
Susan Goodell, the director of El Pasoans Fighting Hunger, told the El Paso County Commissioners Court Sept. 13 that the food bank is considering halving its program that delivers boxes of food to people who are disabled, elderly or positive for COVID-19; eliminating a program to give food to homeless people; and permanently closing the West Side mega-pantry.
“If we find additional manpower and funding, we hope to cut as little as we can, but at the end of the day, this food bank has to be solvable,” Goodell said in an interview.
The West Side mega-pantry will continue its temporary closure for now, Goodell said.
“We’re anxious to reopen that site, since there are so few partners who could help cover the need in the area,” she said.
County Commissioner Carl Robinson, whose district encompasses the Northeast, called the food bank “essential” and said he would “do everything” he could to support the nonprofit.
Goodell said the organization is applying for federal relief funds from the county, a process that is expected to continue through mid-October. Until then, she said, no final decisions will be made about the program cuts.
The food bank has reduced the monthly food given from 13 million pounds to 9 million pounds despite high need in the community, Goodell said, adding that funding from local governments declined in 2021.
“Effectively, we’ve been starving the food bank since the beginning of this year,” Goodell said.
A legislative solution?
El Paso lawmakers are hopeful that the Texas Legislature can provide funding for the food bank when it meets during its third special session that began this week.
“Keeping our food bank funded is crucial for the most vulnerable in our community. Members of our delegation have been working closely with Dr. (Greg) Bonnen, who chairs House Appropriations, to secure that money. The work is ongoing, but we’re committed to fighting for food stability in El Paso,” state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, said in an emailed statement.
During the pandemic, El Paso’s food bank grew to the third largest out of the 200 food banks in the nonprofit Feeding America Network, just behind Houston and Los Angeles. Volunteer shifts precipitously declined as seniors, schools and corporations adapted to the pandemic. The gaps in staffing were filled by nonprofits, including Get Shift Done and AmeriCorps, as well as the Texas National Guard.
But Gov. Greg Abbott ordered the redeployment of Texas National Guard to the Rio Grande Valley and surrounding areas to assist Texas Department of Public Safety troopers arrest people crossing the border on state charges. Goodell said the last of the Texas National Guard will leave Sept. 30, unless their orders change.
In response to the loss of volunteers and staffers, the food bank cut hours at locations and shuttered three of its mega-pantries, which provided food five days a week and often in larger amounts than shelters, food pantries, school programs or soup kitchens. About 132 of those smaller organizations are stocked by the food bank, but are often limited by varying schedules or limits on how much food they can give.
Goodell said there has been a small bump in volunteer numbers this past month.
“All told, our volunteers account for about 17 (full-time employees), and 17 full-time employees can’t replace 96 soldiers, 60 AmeriCorps fellows or, at times, over 100 Get Shift Done workers,” she said.
The six members of the El Paso state legislative delegation wrote to Abbott last month, asking him to reconsider the reassignment of the Texas National Guard soldiers.
Abbott’s office declined to comment, deferring to the Texas Military Department.
Goodell said she thinks there is a viable option to change the model. The food bank instituted an outdoor mercado as a pilot project at the El Pasoans Fighting Hunger mega-pantry at Plaza Circle in Southeast El Paso. Goodell said setting out food like a traditional grocery store outside prevents the need for volunteers to put food into people’s cars, and allows more personal choices for the people who need food.
The pilot project started last week, and Goodell expects to have a grand opening at the end of September.
Goodell said if the idea works, then the model could be replicated at some of the shuttered mega-pantries, which had to close due to a lack of volunteers.
“I’m excited to have a model with a lot less manpower, that can still feed a whole lot of people,” she said.
Cover photo: A worker in the El Paso Community Foundation’s “Get Shift Done” program selects produce for a food package at the El Pasoans Fighting Hunger headquarters on May 5, 2020. Staffing assistance from these special programs and from organizations like the National Guard are ending, forcing EPFH to close several food distribution sites. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)