El Paso’s food bank is experiencing a critical setback this holiday season – a major food shortage. 

Susan Goodell, CEO of El Pasoans Fighting Hunger Food Bank, said that the nonprofit is struggling to maintain four days’ worth of food for families in need. Most of the shelves inside the warehouse sat empty on Monday as cars lined up on the street and into the parking lot for groceries outside the food bank’s Lower Valley headquarters.

The pantry is open weekdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., but families are arriving as early as 4:30 a.m. to secure a spot at the front of the line. An average of 1,300 to 1,400 families pick up groceries each day at the food bank. That doesn’t include visitors to its partner organizations, such as soup kitchens, shelters and school programs throughout El Paso, Culberson and Hudspeth counties.

The food bank’s supply shortage began during the pandemic and has worsened over time. Prior to the pandemic, the food bank maintained a two-month supply of food for fewer families, primarily through its partner organizations. 

One of its partners, the Kelly Center for Hunger Relief in Downtown, receives supplies primarily through the food bank. But in the last few months, the center has received less food and more clients – about 600 people visit a day – so volunteers are rationing what they give out, said Sara Molina, the center’s food pantry manager. For example, families are getting one bag of rice or beans instead of four like in the past, she said.

AmeriCorp member Mya Silva prepares food bags at El Pasoans Fighting Hunger Food Bank on Monday. (Priscilla Totiyapungprasert/El Paso Matters)

About 15% of El Paso residents live with food insecurity – limited or uncertain access to adequate food, according to 2020 data from Feeding America. Food insecurity can lead to various health problems in both adults and children, from the development of chronic disease to a negative effect on mental health. Children facing hunger also face higher risks of health conditions such as anemia and asthma, according to Feeding America.

Food banks all over Texas and the United States are experiencing a similar strain of high demand, low supply.

Struggling to keep up

El Pasoans Fighting Hunger is a member of Feeding America, the country’s largest network of food banks. The El Paso food bank competes with others in the network by bidding on truckloads of food, but it hasn’t been that successful, said organization spokesperson Lonnie Valencia.

Inflation and soaring food prices have made it challenging for the El Paso food bank to purchase goods. To stretch its funds further, the food bank purchases food that is not pre-packaged and therefore less expensive. Cereal, for example, comes in a massive bag that towers over food bank workers, who then sort and box the cereal in family-sized portions.

The downside is that this food requires more time and manpower to package, and volunteer numbers dwindled during the pandemic, Valencia said.

On Wednesday afternoon, volunteers at the Kelly Center divided up and bagged various produce, including green peppers, lemons, limes and apples. The food pantry, open Tuesday through Saturday, receives a shipment every morning from El Pasoans Fighting Hunger and each day brings a different assortment.

People ask for meat, but with a limited quantity, that’s usually gone by noon, Molina said. The number of clients, while lower than early in the pandemic, is still higher than before the pandemic. Food prices remain high from inflation, hitting low-income families the hardest – the families who are also slowest to recover from disasters like the COVID-19 health crisis.

Pallets of canned salmon sit in the warehouse of El Pasoans Fighting Hunger Food Bank. Food banks in El Paso and across Texas face a rise in demand over the pandemic, but tighter supplies. (Priscilla Totiyapungprasert/El Paso Matters)

Federal assistance is down right now, but other cities’ food banks can turn to their local food surplus to make up for it, Goodell said. El Paso has fewer local food producers and manufacturers, however, so the food bank can’t rely on local supply. The county is geographically isolated from other parts of the country that produce food, so the food bank would turn to Phoenix and Austin for supplies. But lately, it is traveling greater distances to buy food, she said.

At risk of further cuts

The food shortage compounds other hurdles the organization is facing.

El Pasoans Fighting Hunger has seen its volunteer numbers fall during the pandemic. In 2021, the Texas National Guard covered that gap, but the troops left later that year after Gov. Greg Abbott reassigned them to Operation Lone Star, his controversial border security initiative.

The lack of volunteers forced the food bank to shut down two of its mega pantries on the Westside and Northeast. The Lower Valley site and the Kelly Center are the only two mega pantries that remain in operation.

The food shortage is also putting the delivery program at risk, Goodell said. Twice a month, the food bank delivers groceries via DoorDash to 1,600 seniors, people with disabilities and homebound individuals. The food bank used to deliver each week, but had to reduce frequency because of food and funding restraints. It is “incredibly difficult right now” to make sure that program continues, she said.

The holidays can be a harder burden on low-income families because along with their regular, incurring costs, their children are home and not getting free breakfast and lunch from school, Goodell said. 

“On top of that, (these) families just like everyone else just want to have a little bit of extra for the holidays, so they’re trying to save up whatever they can to make sure their child has something special for the holidays,” she said. “So many of those families come here to the food bank to try to stretch those resources.”

Goodell said people can make a monetary donation to support the food bank’s services. People can donate and sign up to volunteer at El Pasoans Fighting Hunger Food Bank online.

The Kelly Center for Hunger Relief is also taking donations online and directing those interested in volunteering to El Pasoans Fighting Hunger where there is a greater labor need. Molina said people can also drop off ready-to-eat food during operating hours, which the Kelly Center bags for unhoused people.

Disclosure: El Paso Matters CEO Robert Moore is a board member for El Pasoans Fighting Hunger Food Bank. Moore was not involved in the reporting or editing of this story.

Priscilla Totiyapungprasert is a health reporter at El Paso Matters and Report for America corp member. She previously covered food and environment at The Arizona Republic. You can follow her on social...