On Friday morning, the folding curbside sign outside the Greater Zion Missionary Baptist Church read “Free Food” with an arrow pointing to a drive-thru distribution point where some two dozen church volunteers and from the Shepherd’s Heart Christian Food Pantry carried boxes of food to a small but steady stream of cars and trucks.
This is one of 16 sites in and around Waco that Shepherd’s Heart provides and the attendance at the Greater Zion Missionary Baptist Church site this Friday illustrates what Director Bob Gager, his staff and volunteers are seeing in the region: growing demand for food aid even after two years of disruption due to the COVID-19 pandemic, hunger levels have reached new heights.
“We’re seeing an increase in the last two months, about 70% more than last year at this time,” Gager said.
A lot of people coming in for cans of produce, protein, dried and canned goods tell her it’s their first time looking for help.
“With the price of gas and the price of food, they’re just trying to feed their families,” he said.
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In February, the organization provided food for some 4,800 families, nearly double the heart of the number Shepherd served in a typical pre-pandemic February. The arrival of Covid-19 in Central Texas in March began widespread lockdowns 2020 of jobs and schools that forced thousands to seek food when home budgets and reliable nutrition sources were lacking.
Nationwide, food insecurity for thousands of families and individuals plagued months of Covid-19 disruptions, prompting Congress to authorize millions of dollars in food aid and ease restrictions on school meal programs. Modified Covid-19 operations protocols and volunteer availability for many Waco organizations. Some, like Shepherd Heart and the Central Texas Regional Food Bank, have moved from stationary food banks to mobile ones that have allowed better access for recipients. For more than a year, the Central Texas Food Bank has held periodic mass drive-thru distribution events in Waco at venues including Waco DSI Stadium that provided boxes of food for thousands at a time.
As the area’s economy recovers from the impact and new cases in McLennan County of Covid-19 are at their lowest level since June 2021, Heart and other local Shepherd groups and agencies are finding a need for support. food aid has not decreased, although the reasons for this could have changed.
“We all face inflation issues,” said Ann Owen, executive director of Waco’s social services agency, Caritas. Owen said his organization had seen a 20% increase in the number of people going to Caritas over the past month, whether for food aid or financial help with utility bills and rent.
And where Caritas encouraged customers to visit its pantry every month, others are asking for fortnightly visits.
“They’re really feeling the pinch of higher food prices, higher gas prices,” Owen said.
For working people with lower incomes, increasing portions of a household budget force tough decisions on where to cut back in other places.
“For some, it’s the choice of a roof over their head, keeping the power on, getting to work, or feeding their family,” she said.
The current rise in gas and food prices adds to other concerns, including delayed income tax refunds or child tax credits, annual housing and tenancy contracts at renew but at a higher cost and higher gas and electricity bills, she said.
The Waco organization has sufficient food resources to meet demand and some measure of energy assistance, but lacks funds, donated or government, to fully meet rental or fuel needs. Last month, Caritas provided help in one way or another to 1,858 families, 98 of whom were asking for help for the first time.
“I expect to see more next month,” Owen said.
Rising gas prices are a concern for Meals on Wheels, which uses a force of around 500 volunteer drivers to deliver meals each week to elderly or disabled adults and others in their homes. The organization serves 15,000 meals a month to between 800 and 900 adults in McLennan, Falls and Hill counties.
Last year saw the reopening of many senior centers where many seniors in the tri-county area would regularly go for meals, and which relieved some strain on Meals on Wheels, Chief Executive Debbie King said. said. Meals on Wheels volunteer drivers bear the brunt of higher gas prices, and the organization adjusts to rising food costs.
“Every food bill that comes is higher than the last,” King said. “We watch our pennies too.”
Several hundred adults are on the Meal Wheels waiting list, and King says she sees an increase in there more demographics than the economy.
“I believe we see the baby boomer group,” she says. “Our phone rings all the time. »
Individuals and groups fighting childhood hunger and food insufficiency are eagerly awaiting June 30, when federal waivers for school feeding programs will expire. In addition, these programs will receive less funding under the recently passed federal budget.
Congress and the Department of Agriculture, which oversees school nutrition and child feeding programs, have relaxed guidelines on school lunch programs during the pandemic, allowing families to eat meals at school, rather than requiring kids to eat them there, and providing meals for more than just students, said John Puder, statewide child hunger outreach director for the Baylor Collaborative on hunger and poverty.
More families participated in the broader guidelines, encouraging organizers that increased access was bringing the food more people need. “For the first time, more children were actually receiving meals. … Every child ate, free, breakfast and lunch,” Puder said.
Cuts to nutrition and food programs in the recently passed federal budget for fiscal year 2022, coupled with the end of USDA waivers, will mean fewer meals for fewer children.
“We’re all scrambling to fix this problem,” he said. “It’s going to put a strain on the budget of all children’s feeding nonprofits. »
Some states are moving to pick up the slack with their own programs, said Katie Nye, statewide field director for the collaboration. But for now, the agencies and organizations involved are trying to coordinate their communication and messaging to inform those affected of the changes and direct them to other sources of food assistance.
Central Texas Food Bank leaders are looking ahead to summer, a time when the organization has a major fundraising campaign and also a time when many students in school face higher food insecurity. The organization supplies food to 56 mobile pantries in a 21-county area that includes McLennan County, providing the equivalent of 53.8 million meals in the fiscal year that ended September 31, 2021 , spokesman Paul Gaither said.
Demand is still about 25% higher than before the pandemic, and its monthly food spend, compounded first by supply chain issues and now rising reduced prices and donations at retailers, are roughly $1 million. So far, contributions and volunteers from the area have stepped up to meet the needs.
“The Central Texas community has been very generous,” Gaither said. “We saw a huge outpouring of support. »
Gager, the director of Shepherd’s Heart, said his organization is confident the resources will meet demand, as it always has.
“Everything we do here is out of community donations,” he said. “We are taking one step at a time. We walk by faith and not by sight. »