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Lines At Food Banks Grow Longer By The Week


Ten thousand cars waited hours in line for emergency food assistance in San Antonio last week. A drone photograph of the packed parking lot circulated across the country - maybe you saw this. I mean, these were some of the more than 20 million unemployed Americans, many of them recently laid off because of the pandemic. NPR's John Burnett reports that lines at food banks like this across the country are growing longer every week.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: A huge food warehouse on the outskirts of San Antonio is stacked four stories high with apples, oranges and watermelons...


BURNETT: ...Potatoes, tomatoes and onions, chicken, ground beef and tater tots. A quartet of forklifts working like soldier ants is filling a truck with pallets of carrots.

ERIC COOPER: We stock refrigerated, frozen, nonperishable and non-food items, so it moves through our facility at a fairly rapid pace. Obviously, now in the midst of COVID-19, the demand is far outpacing the supply.

BURNETT: Eric Cooper is CEO of the San Antonio Food Bank. In addition to feeding the hungry in this city of more than 2 million souls, it supplies 500 food pantries throughout South Texas. In a normal week, the food bank feeds about 60,000 people in its region. Today, that number has doubled. Last week, they knew they'd be busy. A record 6,000 families had pre-registered for food distribution at a sprawling flea market parking lot. When word got out on social media, 4,000 more cars showed up.

COOPER: I panicked. I've never seen a line that long. And so I called our warehouse to send more trucks to get more food onsite, but we in the end serve 10,000 families.

BURNETT: Eric Cooper estimates half of the people coming to the food bank these days are first-timers. They're mothers like Erica Campos, a 42-year-old bank employee with two young daughters at home. She was doing OK, her job was stable. She even bought a home late last year, but she really depended on $1,200 a month in child support from her ex-husband. Then he lost his job as a hotel concierge because of the coronavirus shutdown, and his checks stopped. Campos could no longer make ends meet.

ERICA CAMPOS: I never, ever could have even imagined anything like this.

BURNETT: She drives a nice car and wears stylish eyeglasses over her face mask.

CAMPOS: So, I mean, I was very, almost ashamed, to be honest, to even pick up food from the food bank. Somebody might look at my used Cadillac and be like, what is she doing in the food bank line, you know? But I had to get past those feelings of shame. There is no shame in feeding my children.

BURNETT: With other natural disasters, you might expect to see regional hardship and strained food banks, but the economic cataclysm that has followed coronavirus has spread out the suffering around the planet.

ZUANI VILLARREAL: So what we're seeing at the San Antonio Food Bank, Feeding America food banks are seeing all over the country.

BURNETT: Zuani Villarreal is with Feeding America, a network of 200 of the nation's food banks, including San Antonio's.

VILLARREAL: The pandemic is showing the fragility of families' household budgets. With one lost paycheck, many families are figuring out how to put food on the table.

BURNETT: This morning, the San Antonio Food Bank has set up another distribution center, and officials hazard to guess how many folks will be there. Dozens parked overnight and slept in their cars to be sure they'd get some groceries. John Burnett, NPR News, San Antonio.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHALE FALL'S "SWAGGER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.

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