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Food Bank sees uptick in clients following rise in unemployment

Vanessa Morelion stands in the middle of the South Plains Food Bank warehouse.
Kaysie Ellingson
Vanessa Morelion stands in the middle of the South Plains Food Bank warehouse.

Before COVID-19, a little more than 22 percent of children in Texas were food insecure. Nationally it’s 17 percent.

With the spike in unemployment and the closing of schools due to the pandemic, that number is going up. Vanessa Morelion with the South Plains Food Bank is on the ground every day seeing these numbers climb. “Last month we served a little over six thousand people,” she says.

Almost two to three thousand of those six thousand were new clients, she explains. “It was crazy to see, but we were expecting it.” With the number of people throughout Lubbock getting laid off, they were bracing for the rise in need and they were ready for it. “But we don’t like seeing it because our mission is to end hunger and seeing more people come up is a lot harder than what most people think,” she says.

She guides me through the foodbank’s warehouse explaining that this facility is almost five years old. As she talks about the drive-thru that’s essential now, but has always been there, a car pulls up. It rolls over the sensor and the bell sounds throughout the warehouse.

An employee places a box filled with food onto a freshly sanitized cart. He wheels it to the car and allows the passenger to pack the items themselves—part of social distancing. Supplies differ day to day, but they typically include dry food, canned goods and fresh produce that they grow locally.

“Look like we have oranges and apples to give out today,” Morelion says, as she pulls out the box to show me. A little-known fact about the South Plains Food Bank is that they have an orchard and a small farm on their premises that provides them fresh produce.

“In a year’s time we will serve about 65,000 unduplicated families.” David Weaver says. “And we serve 20 counties in this area.” He’s the CEO of the South Plains Food Bank and a Lubbock native who has earned his bragging rights of having gone to school with Buddy Holly. Back in January, when life was normal, he had planned to retire. But for now, those plans are on hold.

He explains that one of the interesting features of West Texas is the low unemployment–that was until COVID-19 hit–but the fairly high poverty ratios. He points to the college population as a potential reasoning for this—more people willing to work for less. “I think people are surprised by that a lot,” he says. So, they serve a lot of families, and about half of the 65,000, he says, will be children, 18 and under.

Weaver shoots off a list of services the food bank provides, and it’s not short. Among them is an afterschool feeding program called Kids Café. These children are more often than not on the free and reduced lunch programs at their school.

“I think there’s only one or two of those schools in Lubbock that don’t qualify for the free and reduced lunch program,” he says. “So that tells you that really there are pockets of food insecurity throughout Lubbock.”

According to an article released by Children at Risk, neighborhoods in the north eastern parts of the city have a higher concentration of people with food insecurity. These neighborhoods are largely made up of black and Hispanic residents.

Nationally, people of color experience food insecurity at a higher rate than others. Weaver breaks it down according to what he sees on a local level. “If you think about the population of Lubbock [broadly speaking] a third of our clients would be white, a third would be Hispanic and a third would be African American. And that does not reflect the population breakdown of Lubbock as a whole.”

Social vulnerabilities, such as access to transportation and socio-economic status, are factors driving people to food insecurity. In East Lubbock for example, the average household has 2 cars, which is the same across the city, however the average household in that area has 7 members. Across Lubbock, it’s less than three. It’s these inequities that the South Plains Food Bank is working to overcome.

Back at the food bank’s warehouse, Morelion walks me into a large room towards the back of the facility. She explains that this particular room is usually empty—reserved for emergency situation. Currently, the room is packed. “Right now we’re usually prepping for summer feeding but now we’re just trying to get through pandemic first,” she says.

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