Food banks have seen demand climb dramatically this year. Eric Cooper of the San Antonio Food Bank talks about how additional federal dollars could make a difference to his clients.
SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:
Millions of Americans prepared for a different kind of holiday this year. In south central Texas...
ERIC COOPER: We provided brisket and sausage, and that's a Texas Christmas for families.
PFEIFFER: ...Workers at the San Antonio Food Bank were happy to fill clients' boxes with something festive.
COOPER: And to see their excitement and their appreciation of just being able to get those special items along with the fresh produce and dairy - it nurses their soul along with their body.
PFEIFFER: That's Eric Cooper, CEO of the San Antonio Food Bank. He's been doing this work for almost three decades - through natural disasters, through economic downturns. He says nothing can compare to 2020.
COOPER: It's been crazy, right? At the onset of the crisis, there was a tightening of the supply chain. Many of our sources for food - restaurants, hotels, caterers - were closed. Our grocery retailers were actually selling out of food. And so there was nothing left over for us to pick up.
PFEIFFER: At the same time, demand at the San Antonio Food Bank was doubling.
COOPER: We went from feeding 60,000 people a week pre-COVID to 120,000 people a week.
PFEIFFER: Eric Cooper worried. Would his organization be able to collect enough to feed these families? So far, it has. Private donations have helped - government programs, too. The new COVID relief bill Congress passed this week, the one waiting for a presidential signature, includes $400 million to help supply food banks.
Eric Cooper says while the scale of this ongoing crisis is mind-blowing, he's also struck by the San Antonians who are now in line.
COOPER: For many of these families, it's the first time they've ever come to their local food bank to get help. They now find themselves unemployed or underemployed. And, you know, I think they're confused. They don't know how it works exactly. They're frustrated because many of those federal safety nets that they thought, OK, these programs exist to help people when they're down and out, and I'm in that situation - but, for instance, in Texas, if you were to apply for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, SNAP, and your automobile is worth more than $15,000, that automatically disallows you from participating in the SNAP program. And so the food banks become their only source of food.
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COOPER: I've met so many seniors who are just very afraid of catching the virus. When I asked a senior couple about their situation, and I stood on the passenger side where the wife was sitting and the husband, with his hands on the steering wheel, just bowed his head. In his mask, I could see his eyes watering up. And, you know, he just said, it's hard. It's just so hard. It's hard. To cross that line of pride and overcome the stigma to get help is huge, and I'm seeing that in the pandemic. I mean, people that - they've been in crisis since March, yet they're coming in December now to get food because their world has continued to unravel. They've just tried to suck it up and to make it and now are coming in for the first time. And I wish they would reach out sooner.
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COOPER: Ultimately, I hope that the economy is renewed and moves in a more sustainable strategy that creates less dependence on the food bank, not more. For several decades, I guess I felt like I'm just a part of the benefits package of a low-wage employer, that the food bank is just part of their employees' life, that they're going to need it because there isn't enough hourly wage to cover their rent and utilities and still put food on the table. As the economy strengthens and more people go back to work, I hope that it's within every businesses' thinking that we can't do things like we did before. You know, our destiny has to be different.
PFEIFFER: That's Eric Cooper, CEO of the San Antonio Food Bank. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.