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“An inverse tsunami”: How inflation and drought are making it harder to feed West Texans in need

 West Texas Food Bank volunteer Gloria Benson uses cans to direct traffic at the food bank in Odessa on Oct. 5, 2022.
Mark Rodgers
/
The Texas Tribune
West Texas Food Bank volunteer Gloria Benson uses cans to direct traffic at the food bank in Odessa on Oct. 5, 2022.

Food banks across Texas are now struggling to keep up with growing demand even more than they were during the pandemic.

LUBBOCK — Libby Campbell was counting the cars that pulled into the West Texas Food Bank’s Mobile Pantry.

It was a chilly, cloudy Thursday morning in Midland, but that didn’t stop the cars. Campbell, the food bank’s CEO, watched them drift into the parking lot and knew there would be even more before they officially opened for the day.

“There’s going to be well over 300 cars today,” Campbell said. “Yesterday in Odessa, we had 600 cars wrapped around the building.”

Nearly 4 million Texans struggle with hunger and food insecurity, according to Feeding Texas, a nonprofit organization that partners with 21 food banks to provide food across the state. The problem is especially prevalent in rural areas, where access to grocery stores and healthy food is limited.

This has created clusters of food deserts in West Texas, where people are currently facing food insecurity at worse levels than during the COVID-19 pandemic, food bank directors say. Gas, clothes, food and utility costs have all been steadily rising since May due to inflation with little relief. Because of this, organizations like the West Texas Food Bank — which provides food to 48,000 people across 19 counties — are seeing more than four times as many people in need of assistance.

 The West Texas Food Bank provides food to 48,000 people across 19 counties.
Mark Rodgers
/
The Texas Tribune
The West Texas Food Bank provides food to 48,000 people across 19 counties.

Almost a quarter of West Texas Food Bank’s customers are people who haven’t needed any form of public assistance before. Many of them have full-time jobs but often fall into a gap when it comes to assistance because they don’t make enough to make ends meet, but they make too much to qualify for food stamp programs like SNAP or WIC.

“I don’t know if we’ve ever seen this happen before, where we have pushed a whole new group of people into poverty,” Campbell said.

This has also created a problem for food banks around the state as they juggle inflation, program funding requirements and increased demand for food. For example, the North Texas Food Bank, which serves the Dallas-Fort Worth region, has seen an 18% increase in meals delivered to their area compared to the start of the year.

“Due to inflation, the need for food assistance is greater today than it was at the height of the pandemic,” said Jeff Smith with the North Texas Food Bank.

Smith said the food bank and its network of 400 pantries are providing an average of 12.4 million meals each month.

“An inverse tsunami”

Inflation is the driving force behind the problem. However, Bill Miller, CEO of humanitarian relief organization Breedlove in Lubbock, said other factors are intensifying it.

A requirement for federal funding is to buy fresh produce grown by local producers, but the historic drought has wiped out corn and wheat crops. Supply chain issues are leaving less for food banks to buy. Demand all over Texas is skyrocketing, but financial and food donations are dropping. There’s a shrinking labor pool, so there aren’t enough truck drivers to bring in food from other states or enough people to work in operations growing fruits and vegetables.

“It’s sort of an inverse tsunami, with demand keeps going up and resources going down,” Miller explained. “We’re in a tough situation that could get bleaker very quickly. It’s unfathomable.”

Breedlove develops food products that are nutritional, have a long shelf life and are easy to prepare, with the main ingredients being vegetables, lentils and rice. They distribute the food to food banks around the world, and Miller said it’s as nutritional as you can get but they still don’t fit into certain programs for some food banks.

The United States Department of Agriculture does have a requirement that funding is used to buy locally grown produce. The requirement is hard to manage in some regions, Miller said.

“Food banks in El Paso and South (Texas) have access to fresh produce — they can use that money,” Miller explained. “Here? Not so much.”

Miller pointed to the model that has been set by the Midwest Food Bank, a nontraditional food bank that accepts and distributes food that is good and available, regardless of nutritional value. The bank provides food in Texas, as well as seven other states.

“It just keeps growing”

At the West Texas Food Bank, they thought they were seeing things finally calm back down from the pandemic. That was until this past May, when inflation rose to 8.6%, the highest since 1981.

That’s when the food bank started seeing the demand go back up.

“It’s been a steady climb every month since then,” Campbell said.

But this particular surge has been worse than what the food bank experienced during the pandemic, which had been its most challenging time. Previously, the most it distributed to its service area was about 550,000 pounds. Its busiest month during the pandemic saw that increase to nearly 1.4 million pounds of food.

 From left, Gloria Benson, Tricia Perkins, Gio Delgado and Stacey Casarez make plans before opening the food bank line for food pickups in Odessa on Oct. 5, 2022.
Mark Rodgers
/
The Texas Tribune
From left, Gloria Benson, Tricia Perkins, Gio Delgado and Stacey Casarez make plans before opening the food bank line for food pickups in Odessa on Oct. 5, 2022.

 First: Brent Oden passes out information to people in line at the West Texas Food Bank. Last: Yuchih Choy loads boxes of food into a pickup.
Mark Rogers
/
The Texas Tribune
First: Brent Oden passes out information to people in line at the West Texas Food Bank. Last: Yuchih Choy loads boxes of food into a pickup.

“Right now, we haven’t dropped below 1.3 million pounds in four months,” Campbell said. “It just keeps growing.”

There was a similar jump for the North Texas Food Bank. Before the pandemic, it would deliver an average of 7.3 million meals a month. During the pandemic until this past February, the average was 10.5 million meals a month. Since March, it’s gone up to 12.4 million meals.

“The reality of food insecurity isn’t about food, it’s about income — where income does not cover basic needs of a family,” Smith said. “Our neighbors in every ZIP code are facing increasingly difficult choices every day, deciding whether to purchase groceries or pay for other necessities such as gas, medicine or utilities. Access to nutritious food should never have to be a choice.”

The need can be seen in how many people are in the West Texas Food Bank programs. The preliminary numbers for its backpack program for kids, which provides a sack of ready-to-eat food for roughly four meals at home, show more than 3,400 children will be participating. Its meal program for the Boys and Girls Clubs in the Midland-Odessa area has 800 kids signed up, and that number is rising. More than 2,000 seniors have signed up for the senior box program.

Campbell said most of the food bank’s clients are brought in because they are in poverty, including many people who have jobs but don’t make enough to cover all their expenses. According to the Texas comptroller, 19% of the West Texas region makes less than $25,000 a year. The average income in West Texas is about $63,000 a year.

“If you’ve got $1,800 rent, maybe $400 a month on groceries, car insurance, gas, medical expenses, bills, you start to kind of run through it,” Campbell said. “Everyone is just one disaster away from needing assistance, from needing a food bank.”

Copyright 2022 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Jayme Lozano | The Texas Tribune