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San Antonio Food Bank CEO Eric Cooper woke up April 9 knowing it would be a busy day.
Cooper was preparing for another food distribution event, but this one would turn out to be different in many ways.
“I was driving the other side of Loop 410 looking over at this this line,” Cooper said. “And at that moment, I said to my team, we’re gonna need more food. This is insane.”
That day Cooper and his team handed out food to about 10,000 local households at Traders Village in Southwest San Antonio.
Images and videos of thousands of families in their cars lined up for miles, waiting to receive food, received national attention.
And in San Antonio, the record-setting giveaway illustrated the economic crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was overwhelming. We were just a month into the crisis and many people’s last dollars were spent. Families needed food immediately,” Cooper said.
Cooper said nearly half of the families waiting in line had never received assistance from the food bank and had simply run out of options.
Many had worked in the hardest-hit industries like food service, tourism or hospitality.
“The collapse of those industries have displaced so many people now that are coming to get food,” Cooper said. “They were just above the poverty line, but not far enough above. They were literally that paycheck away from a crisis.”
The San Antonio Food Bank has been a lifeline for South Texans who have either lost their jobs or are underemployed due to the pandemic.
Cooper said demand has doubled since the onset of COVID-19. The food bank has gone from feeding 60,000 people a week to feeding 120,000.
Those numbers are an indication of underlying economic issues in the city.
San Antonio has the highest poverty rate in the country out of the 25 largest metro areas in the United States.
According to 2018 data from American Community Survey, 18.6 percent of residents in San Antonio lived in poverty compared to 15.5 person in Texas overall, and 14.1 person in the United States overall.
Cooper added that many more South Texas families live right above the poverty line so when the pandemic hit, it pushed those households over the edge.
Overall, it was a wake-up call for many local leaders, non-profits and organizations.
“In the moment we were just doing our job. It wasn’t until actually I saw the photos of that day’s distribution that it caused me to pause and ponder that the need is great,” said Cooper.
The food bank has held several more distribution events with the assistance of other local non-profits, organizations and schools.
Cooper credits his volunteers and staff for the immense work and time they dedicate to put food on tables across South Texas.
“Our staff have continued to be resilient and strong knowing that without us being able to provide food to families, they won’t be nourished,” said Cooper.
Donations and contributions have allowed the food bank to keep up with the massive demand and continue its mission to serve and nourish the community.
“If it wasn’t for our great city and lots of great companies and individuals, and food companies and foundations, we would have run out of food,” Cooper said. “When San Antonio is being selfless and giving something up, they’re at their best. That’s what I have the privilege of seeing.”
While the food bank’s goal is to feed families in the present, Cooper said the nonprofit also wants to help stabilize households for the future.
The food bank assists and educates families on government programs such as SNAP, WIC and a program called Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (PEBT), which assists parents of small children that are missing school meals.
“Many of those families never imagined applying for SNAP before,” said Cooper. “We help them understand that this isn’t something to be ashamed of. It’s a program that’s there to help them in their time of need and will end when the need goes away.”
Cooper hopes that day at Traders Village will serve as a turning point for policy change and will help San Antonio build a better safety net.
“That’s what I saw at Traders Village. People giving so people could have something to eat. I think the world saw that and hopefully we made San Antonio proud,” Cooper said.