Most days, the line of cars outside the El Pasoans Fighting Hunger Food Bank starts at its parking lot and continues for about a half mile down the road, past the stop sign on Plaza Circle and Americas Avenue, and onto Joe Battle Boulevard.
As the hours pass, the line doesn’t get any shorter. Sometimes the wait can be up to two hours.
A year ago, assisting all those families was easy as dozens of volunteers helped the food bank’s staff. Today, it is a struggle because of the lack of volunteers, according to food bank officials who are making a public plea for volunteers to return.
“It is insanely hard to get people to come back here,” said Lonnie Valencia, director of communications for the food bank. “Before COVID, we had a healthy volunteer staff. COVID hit, and it destroyed everything that we had for the program because no one could volunteer.”
The food bank has between 70 to 80 employees at any given time, often depending on funding available. To handle the daily demand at what is the third largest food bank in America, officials estimate some 80 volunteers are needed daily. Lately, only a handful have come to volunteer. During one week in August, only 22 volunteers were scheduled.
The food bank’s needs have also increased with the recent influx of migrants into the community, Valencia said.
The food bank has long partnered with churches and shelters such as Annunciation House, which have been overwhelmed with migrants. Most recently, employees and volunteers have put in extra hours helping feed those at the city’s migrant processing center and making sack lunches for those migrants released to the streets in Downtown, Valencia said.
“No one should go hungry,” he said. “They’re in our service area, often hungry and in need of food. We’re going to feed them.”
Last year, the volunteer shortage was eased by the Texas National Guard, which stepped in to help. Volunteers from AmeriCorps and nonprofits Get Shift Done, Team Rubicon and Workforce Solutions Borderplex were also sent to assist.
However, in August 2021, Gov. Greg Abbott reassigned the troops that were helping at the food bank to the Rio Grande Valley and its surrounding areas to assist the Texas Department of Public Safety in his controversial border security initiative. By the end of September 2021, all of the troops had left El Paso’s food bank.
Since then. the food bank had to close one of its mega pantries, cut hours at other sites and eliminate programs. On Aug. 23, the food bank’s senior Food FARMacy program closed its doors until further notice. The senior Food FARMacy resembled a grocery store setting and provided food to low-income seniors, serving 450 families a day.
Factors that contributed to its closure included the high demand, lack of funding and the volunteer shortage, as well as soaring food prices. Staff had to travel further and pay more for food and gas. The food shortage also caused the food bank to compete against others in the country with more money and resources.
“Without the volunteers, it’s just so hard to continue moving forward,” Valencia said. “The little staff that we have now in the mercado are helping with emergency boxes and delivery.”
The food bank currently distributes food outside the facility mercado-style, where people park their cars at the food bank parking lot, grab a shopping cart, line up and pick a select number of items themselves.
“We didn’t have enough hands to be able to give out prepackaged things and put them in cars,” he said.
Volunteers at the food bank sort through donations, package boxes and prepare bags of food. The food bank purchases food in pounds, and that food is not packaged. One large bag of Apple Jacks towers over Valencia as he explains the process.
“A lot of people think we have the food sorted already when we buy it,” Valencia said. “But something like these Apple Jacks come unpackaged. So, if we had the volunteers here, we would have people boxing, and everyone has a station and they would put stuff in the box,” he said. “We would normally have an employee helping as well.”
Inside the warehouse, a large room with big bins full of food donations from companies and the community remains empty.
“We have one volunteer that comes and sorts through all these,” he said. “But it takes more than one person for sure.”
The food bank also distributes food to churches and other city and county pantries, Valencia said.
Alfredo Ortega, incoming president of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul of St. Luke’s Catholic Church, said their volunteer numbers are healthy but don’t require as many as the larger food bank.
Their pantry became a mega food pantry site at the start of the pandemic when EPFH approached them with the idea. Food for the mega pantry comes mainly from El Pasoans Fighting Hunger.
“We don’t have an army of volunteers, but we have enough volunteers to get the job done,” Ortega said.
El Pasoans Fighting Hunger officials said an estimated 1,300 families come each day. Valencia said this far exceeds the numbers reflected prior to the pandemic, when about 400 households per week picked up food from the food bank and volunteer numbers were healthy.
In 2019, the food bank served just over 55,500 households. The latest data from 2021 shows that the food bank served more than 239,000 households.
On the afternoon of Aug. 26, four volunteers and one staff member rushed back and forth to line up several shopping carts. The work is never ending as staff and volunteers monitor the tables and the clients to ensure that everyone is taking the allowed amount and not more. Inside, about 10 volunteers prepared food boxes.
Susana Peña, who has been volunteering with EPFH for two years, said she stopped coming when the pandemic hit in 2020. But as the vaccines rolled out and time passed, she decided it was time to give back.
“There were other things, too, that kept us from coming back,” Peña said. “It was sometimes hard because of family, life, work, school – things like that. It was just a matter of getting things figured out and prioritizing.”
Peña said her family used to help with the Senior FARMacy, but are now helping with other tasks. She and her three children volunteer about three hours on Fridays.
“I have noticed this time around the amount of people that line up and that demand has increased,” Peña said. “And from what I’ve seen they (the food bank) are in need of more volunteers to be able to provide the service to the community.”
Carla, a mother of three, often comes twice a month to get food for three households: hers, her sister’s and her mother’s.
As she loaded up her carts with boxes of strawberries, drinks and more, her 1-year-old daughter held on tightly to an unopened container of strawberries. She stuck her tiny fingers through the plastic perforations and jammed them into a strawberry, then licked the strawberry flavor off her fingers.
Carla lost her job in late 2019, and then COVID-19 pandemic hit. Carla changed her grocery buying habits. But since food prices shot up, said she and her family have turned to food stamps and the food bank for help.
“We don’t buy brand names anymore,” Carla said while loading up her SUV with food. “We have fruits, too, instead of chips. But my teenagers want chips and sodas. I tell them we can’t anymore, sorry. They eat like there’s no tomorrow.”
Carla receives benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. But it’s not enough to feed her daughter and two teenage boys, she said.
“The benefits are so minimal, you know,” she said.
SNAP benefits vary by household size and income: A family of four can receive up to $835 in groceries a month depending on their income. According to Texas Health and Human Services, nearly 140,900 people in El Paso were eligible for SNAP benefits in July, accounting for $19 million in SNAP payments – the sixth highest amount in the state. Residents in Harris County receive an estimated total of $91 million in SNAP payments, the largest in the state.
Officials with El Pasoans Fighting Hunger are hoping to secure enough volunteers to reopen the Senior Food FARMacy program.
Disclosure: El Paso Matters CEO Robert Moore is on the board of El Pasoans Fighting Hunger Food Bank.
How to Help: El Pasoans Fighting Hunger
To volunteer, you must be at least 16 years old and in good general health. You can volunteer as an individual or as a group. The food bank is asking area school and service groups, businesses and corporations to lend a hand by scheduling a few hours of volunteerism with them.