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How Food Banks Are Adjusting to Protect Against COVID-19 and a Demand Surge

More people need food. But people risk spreading coronavirus. Here is how some of the city's food banks are adjusting their operations.
By Trace Miller |
Dallas food banks are facing a surge in demand as thousands of laid-off or furloughed workers stream to food pantries to make ends meet. Like all of us, the mobile pantries are also battling the coronavirus. Unlike those who can hole up at home, their operations make it difficult to physically isolate from others.

The North Texas Food Bank’s mobile pantry is now using the Texas National Guard, who come with more training than the average volunteer as they pack vehicles with boxes. On Wednesday, the Dallas Morning News reported one NTFB employee tested positive for COVID-19, highlighting the risk in doing this work near others and public surfaces. (The employee has been self-quarantining since March 27, when they were last at the Plano headquarters.)

So how are food banks protecting themselves? For stationary pantries, the main battle tactic is converting from a client-choice model, the favored form, to a drive-thru model, like the NTFB mobile pantry. The client-choice model is set up like a grocery store, offering clients the choice—and dignity—of taking home the exact foods they want. But this requires close interaction, which risks spreading COVID-19.

“We’ve got to protect our clients’ health and our health and everyone who’s involved,” says Jesse Kramer, the food programs manager at Crossroads Community Services in southern Dallas. “You’re really close to one another [in a client-choice model]. So, we made the decision to go to a drive-thru food pantry.”

“It’s protecting our clients’ wellbeing and our volunteer and our staff’s wellbeing,” Kramer continues. “They’re sitting in their car, windows are rolled up, and then we’re just loading the food into their trunk.”

The Crossroads food pantry has experienced an exponential demand spike. The week before the

city closed all nonessential businesses, it served 27 new households and 227 households total. The week after, 163 new and 331 total. And the week after the county issued a stay-at-home order, Crossroads served 366 new households and 650 households total. Meanwhile, CitySquare, a client-choice-turned-drive-thru food pantry just outside Deep Ellum, has seen its traffic double.

“We are able to be a lot faster in [the drive-thru] mode because you just stop, you can load up,” Meredith Parrott admits, the food programs manager at CitySquare. The efficiency allows the pantries to meet the demand spikes. But there are drawbacks. Clients can’t choose their foods. So that they might get something that they can’t use because don’t have a traditional kitchen, or a working stove. Maybe they have an allergy or a picky toddler.

Parrott is now operating CitySquare’s food pantry with a skeleton crew, aiming to slow the spread of coronavirus by avoiding congregating volunteers. That means 16 or fewer volunteers to pack bags and boxes, check clients in, load carts up, run carts out, and, basically, wipe everything down after anybody touches anything. All while serving over 1,000 neighbors (“clients” in CitySquare speak) per week.

“It’s been tiring,” Parrott says.

Another tactic, aimed at both meeting demand and controlling coronavirus, is supplying clients with large amounts of food. Debbie Solis is the director of family and community services at Voice of Hope Ministries, which, too, is a client-choice now drive-through food pantry running on a shoestring team. Solis explains that she’s attempting to give households enough food to ride out the stay-at-home order at home instead of foraging the city.

“I don’t want them going out places and maybe getting the virus,” she shrugs.

Kramer does the same for Crossroads’ clients: “They get a week’s worth of food.” he says. “It allows our clients to focus on other priorities in their life.” Such as school, or work, or filing for unemployment. And sheltering in place at home.

The approach is logical but unsustainable. Voice of Hope gathered such a great amount of food, they had to move the pantry to the gym. They filled the gym up, too. Yet the nonprofit has decreased pantry operations from appointments every five minutes three days a week, to appointments every 10 minutes, one day a week. They simply don’t have enough food to fulfill demand. Back at CitySquare, they, too, are grappling with sustainability.

“We’re definitely expecting people who are laid-off, reduced hours, cut hours, working for only half-pay,” Parrott says. “Whatever that is looking like, we’re definitely going to see a need there. But with that, we are also very cognizant of the fact that that need isn’t going to end once everything kind of goes back to normal.”

Without paychecks, workers are unable to pay rent, student loans, car payments, phone bills, credit card bills, food, healthcare, and so on.

“As we’re dealing with what’s becoming the new normal and making this big change from how it was, we’re looking at—we can’t go back to what normal was before,” she says. “Because we need to anticipate being able to meet a higher need until—the end of the year? A year from now? You know, we’re not quite sure what that’s going to look like. So, it’s being flexible today but also planning for a few months down the road as well.”

Parrott pauses. “The biggest need I feel we have right now I just—I want to make sure everyone understands that the need isn’t going to stop. It’s not going to be that light switch.”

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