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Pandemic Drives More Americans To Food Banks

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Hunger is still a problem in some places across the United States, a problem made worse by the latest unemployment claims showing a slow economic recovery from the pandemic. Texas Public Radio's Paul Flahive reports that even months after the pandemic began, food banks are still struggling to meet the demand.

PAUL FLAHIVE, BYLINE: About 20 food bank volunteers crouch over brown paper bags and pour carrots into them. These and other staples are part of a drive-through mass food distribution about to begin in the parking lot of the Alamodome. San Antonio Food Bank President Eric Cooper says before March, when the coronavirus hit, this was something they'd never needed to do.

ERIC COOPER: I had never seen lines this long in my life. I just - I couldn't even wrap my head around - it's what you'd see at a Spurs game. But it was a food distribution, and knowing it was a food distribution was so surreal. And even just standing here in the Alamodome, you know, what are we doing here? Like, this is just crazy. I've gotten used to seeing this now.

FLAHIVE: More than 1,200 families will come through today and nearly every Friday. Many have never needed a food bank before.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: All right. Have you been through here before now?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: No, this is my first time.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: OK. So...

FLAHIVE: Rosario Cepeda sits in her SUV near the front of the line. She came here for the first time in April.

ROSARIO CEPEDA: There's no work. There's not income. At least we have, for sure, food.

FLAHIVE: Cepeda is a hairstylist, and her clients still aren't coming back - scared of COVID. Cepeda was in line at 5 this morning even though food distribution won't start till 9. She'll go to her salon afterwards and hope someone shows up because she has even more mouths to feed.

CEPEDA: My daughter, she has four kids. And the husband doesn't - you know, there's no work and then no rent. And they had to move in the house. That's the toughest thing.

FLAHIVE: Farther back in the line is Trevette Armstrong. Her household went from two incomes to one. And she says if she didn't have these distributions, she would need to choose between food and medicine.

TREVETTE ARMSTRONG: Medicine (laughter) - so being that I'm on Medicare, that helps with some of the medicine. But a lot of the times, even though you're paying insurance costs, the co-pay is still ridiculously high for some of my medications.

FLAHIVE: Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach is director of Northwestern University's Institute for Policy Research. And she calls the numbers in Texas - and across the country - astounding.

DIANE WHITMORE SCHANZENBACH: Yeah, we've never experienced food insecurity at this level since we've been tracking the data, you know, for the last 20 years.

FLAHIVE: The number of Texans who sometimes or often lacked enough to eat peaked in August at 3.6 million according to census figures. But even now, more than 1 in 10 Texans doesn't have enough to eat. And it's worse for families with children. Fifteen percent report turning to charity food.

CLINT CARPENTER: We had saved almost $10,000. We're down to $3,500 due to this pandemic.

FLAHIVE: Clint Carpenter's one of those families. He's 23 and has two children under 7. Because of an illness and the pandemic, he was out of work for several months. Now he travels to a food distribution every other week.

CARPENTER: My freezer's full because of the food drive. I mean, they've provided us with more than enough. I mean, it does get tiring sometimes, eating the same thing. But we're grateful. That's what matters.

FLAHIVE: He and his fiancee hope they can turn it around financially and eventually stop relying on the food bank. But for them and millions of other Texans, it isn't clear when that will be possible.

For NPR News, I'm Paul Flahive in San Antonio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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