Just because the economy is turning around in El Paso as the deadly grip of the pandemic eases doesn’t mean that tens of thousands of people who lost their jobs are suddenly back at work, that their delinquent bills are paid or that there’s food on the table.
That was the message Susan Goodell, CEO of El Pasoans Fighting Hunger took to El Paso County Commissioners Court on Monday in hopes that the county will dip into its coronavirus relief funds again to help the food bank keep its food distribution program going.
“We’re now seeing another 18 to 24 months before people get back to work to where they were at the point before that job was lost,” Susan Goodell, CEO of El Pasoans Fighting Hunger, told commissioners.
Goodell said the $850,000 the county pledged for the food bank last year has had a big hand in providing the equivalent of 116.4 million meals to people in El Paso.
While County Commissioner David Stout repeated his ongoing objection to just giving the food bank more money from the $4 million in federal CARES Act funds the county has left, Goodell was well received. She was praised for her efforts by County Judge Ricardo Samaniego and two other commissioners.
“We’re the only food bank serving El Paso County, and we’re effectively a trucking, warehousing and logistics business with a charitable mission – assuring that our community does not go hungry,” Goodell said. “Many people don’t understand why the need for emergency food is still so high.
“I’ve been asked that question quite a lot lately,” she said. “For many, hunger is not an issue. The sun is shining. Life is good.”
But even before the pandemic, Goodell said, the need for emergency food was high because 157,000 people, or nearly 20% of El Paso County’s population, were living in poverty.
“That number has come down a little since 2020,” Goodell said. “What is different is that the food bank is losing a lot of resources.
“We are losing manpower, and we’re losing funding. And we’re losing them fast.”
The food bank has had the help of 96 national guardsmen, but their number has been reduced to 30 by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, she said, and they will all be gone soon.
The AmeriCorps contingent of 60 fellows has also been reduced and may soon be down to 20.
Then there was the state’s privately funded Get Shift Done effort locally led by Eric Pearson, the CEO of the El Paso Community Foundation. It paid unemployed restaurant and food service workers $10 an hour to work at the food bank from a pool of more than $1 million in private contributions.
The effort ended earlier this summer.
“We exhausted all the funding, and that’s kind of it,” Pearson told El Paso Inc. “I think there’s the issue in philanthropy of ‘turnout burnout.’ It really laid bare some of the issues we have in our community that have always been simmering: Food insecurity, general poverty and the haves versus the have-nots.
“We made some attempts to keep it going, but I think it kind of ran its course. We certainly appreciate how many people gave to that program. It was huge! We expected to run for eight weeks at the peak of the pandemic – and there we were 18 months later.”
Funding from the city and county are also running out, and that was the point of Goodell’s visit with Commissioners Court.
The food bank has already had to close two satellite operations, and without help soon, she said, the food bank will have to “pull back the amount of food that we’re supplying to the community.”
While there was no action on the commissioners’ agenda to be taken Monday, Samaniego said it was important for the members of Commissioners Court to understand the food bank’s situation today.
“We know that there’s a perception that, as we get better at fighting the virus, things get better for everybody else,” he said, likening the pandemic to a terrible storm that goes through a community and leaves serious damage in its wake.
“It’s a very critical, very dynamic moving situation, and the aftermath could be just as critical as the virus,” Samaniego said.
Commissioner Carl Robinson assured Goodell that everyone on the court heard what she said.
“Of all the programs that we support in this community, it’s vital that we support the food bank,” Robison said, adding that he has seen the line of cars that goes for over half a mile outside the food bank every day.
Stout has made his views known that more money should be going to training and hiring SNAP coordinators to enroll more people in the federally funded, state-run program once known as food stamps.
“I feel like we made a mistake in not looking at funding more SNAP investment on coordinators,” he said, adding that he’s not opposed to providing more funds to the food bank. “But I also think we need to start investing in a sustainable solution, which is more SNAP coordinators.”
“I think that if we’re going to have to support Susan and her organization, we should start in investing in weaning people off the emergency assistance that she provides and get them onto a longer-lasting source of resources for their nutritional needs.”
Goodell didn’t argue with Stout about the value of the SNAP coordinators program, but she pointed out that the food bank has distributed about 13.5 million pounds of food a month when it was fully staffed.
“That’s enough food for 174,000 people to have three meals a day,” she said, adding that the food bank already has a small group of SNAP coordinators, and would welcome more.
But, she said, there are terrible flaws in the SNAP program that make it very hard for people to enroll and that SNAP only provides enough food to feed a person for 10 days a month.
Monday’s discussion about the food bank ended with Samaniego thanking Goodell for her presentation.
“We’ll be talking to you,” he said.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (915) 630-6622.