Janie Sinclair, executive director of El Pasoans Fighting Hunger, has a hard time holding back tears as she describes the circumstances of the people the food bank serves.
“If you really see the face of the hungry in El Paso, it has changed so much,” she said. “It’s not the guy standing on the corner with the sign anymore. These are hardworking people that are working as hard as they can. They just can’t make ends meet.”
They are also GIs with families, she says, as well as people who have lost jobs or have medical problems that force them to choose between buying medicine or food.
A native El Pasoan and former Red Cross executive, Sinclair has spent a career in lay ministry and non-profit work. She joined Fighting Hunger in 2013, a year after the food bank moved to a rundown, 177,000 square-foot facility near the Zaragosa Port of Entry.
The building still needs a new roof, and paying the bills is a challenge, but the home of El Pasoans Fighting Hunger isn’t rundown anymore. And it’s put a big dent in the local hunger problem.
Fighting Hunger provides area pantries with food for close to 100,000 people a year, thanks to the help of 6,000 volunteers and tons of food donations from Walmart, Sam’s Club, Costco, Lowe’s Big 8 and Pro’s Ranch Market, among others.
For the previous 20 years, the El Paso community was poorly served by the West Texas Food Bank, which was headquartered in Odessa and operated a 4,500-square-foot warehouse here.
Before the move to a former Phelps Dodge plant, the food bank was distributing less than six pounds of food per person in poverty a year in El Paso. This year, it is distributing 90 pounds per person.
Its new home was made possible by major donations, including $500,000 from Paul Foster and $250,000 from the Hunt Foundation, said Tanny Berg, a longtime board member and benefactor who made it happen.
“There’s room for growth and Janie Sinclair has made a tremendous difference from where we were to where we are today,” Berg said. “I very much appreciate what she’s doing for this food bank.”
Sinclair gave El Paso Inc. the grand tour of the food bank’s new cavernous quarters and then sat down to talk about what a difference Fighting Hunger is making and how El Pasoans can help.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at email@example.com or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.
Q: First, what’s the difference between El Pasoans Fighting Hunger and community food pantries? What is a food bank, how is it different from a pantry?
A food bank is literally that. Food is deposited into this large organization from every source from which we can acquire it coast to coast. We purchase it with grant money. We get some USDA food. Some food comes from local stores.
In turn, we supply that food to 119 food pantries and soup kitchens. Most of them are faith-based. We also supply the Salvation Army, Opportunity Center, Rescue Mission, places like that. Those are the places that actually get the food to the people.
Q. And not just in El Paso?
We serve El Paso, Culbertson and Hudspeth counties. There are only five food pantries in Culbertson and Hudspeth counties. The other 114 are all in El Paso County, from Canutillo to Fort Hancock.
Q: How many hungry people are there in El Paso County and how is that different than other Texas or New Mexico counties?
El Paso has the highest need of any county in Texas, as far as people who are food insecure. That means they may not have access to a healthy meal at any given time, not know where that meal will come from, may not have the funding to get it, may not have the transportation to get it.
There are a lot of things that cause people to be hungry. It could be a change in marital status, unemployment, underemployment. Could be a medical crisis in the family. That could wipe out your funds right there. The majority of the people we serve are either senior citizens or children.
Q: How many hungry people are in El Paso County?
Last year, we served over 99,000 non-repeat individuals at the food pantries, based on the studies we’ve done through Feeding America, Feeding Texas and on our own. We estimate that there are at least 131,000 people out there who would qualify for food assistance that we’ve not been able to reach.
Q: And by qualify, what do you mean? What do you have to do to qualify?
It’s not a free food giveaway. Everyone must qualify. There is a form created by the USDA and Texas Department of Agriculture, and it’s all self-disclosed. We need to know they do in fact live in this county, how many people in the household, what the income is, the source of the income.
It all filters down into a formula and then we will see at the bottom if they qualify for the assistance or not. Most people who come to one of the pantries do qualify.
Q: How would you describe their circumstances?
A lot of the people we serve are the working poor. There was a gentleman who came into one of our food pantries dressed just as nicely as you are, probably very early 30s.
It was the end of the month. He and his wife both work. They have low-paying jobs. They live in a modest apartment. They have two kids. There was not enough money left for food.
People have to make a choice. Will they buy gas for the car, or will they get food? Will they pay the electric bill, or buy food?
Q: Where does the food come from?
Most of it comes from stores – Costco, Sam’s, Walmart and Target. We also get food from Big 8 stores and Pro’s Ranch Market.
Q: How much do you get a day?
Right now it’s very low. Some of our stores are really pulling back. They’re being pushed to put dated items on sale. So our donations from stores are down. We used to get 30 to 35 pallets a day. Now we may only be getting 10.
Q: Seems like that would put you in a jam.
It does, yeah.
Q: Are you running out of food?
Not yet, but we’ll be hit hard in the holiday season.
Q: Where else do you get food from?
We also get food from food drives that the local community does for us. We’ve seen a 58-percent increase in the pounds of the food brought in from food drives from last year to this year. That’s huge.
Q: What would you attribute that to?
The community knows who we are. They trust us.
Three years ago, we were serving less than 4 million pounds of food. Our staff has almost doubled in three years, and we’re hoping to be able to distribute 10 million pounds of food this year.
Q: This is a huge building. How did you get it?
We got it in late 2012 and moved in January 2013. It was the Phelps Dodge copper magnet wire facility and it sat empty for a long, long time. Two people in town, Tanny Berg and Stuart Schwartz, negotiated with Phelps Dodge to help us acquire the building.
It was a $4-million property; we got it for $1.4 million, and we only owe $600,000 on it. It needs a new roof and it looks like it’s going to cost close to $2 million.
Q: That’s a lot of money. How will you pay for it?
We’re going to start a capital campaign for $10 million because there’s a lot that has to be done to the building, besides the roof. It’s 177,000 square feet. If we can get that roof on and get this building ready, we can lease it out, hopefully to other non-profits, and create a steady source of income for the food bank.
Q: When it comes to cash donations, how are you doing? And how does the food bank fare in the competition for money?
There is a great competition for non-profit dollars in the community. We used to be part of West Texas Food Bank out of Odessa. Three years ago, nobody knew who we were at all. We rebranded ourselves, and people have learned who we are.
Now they are coming to us, saying, “We believe in what you’re doing. How can we help?” That’s not to say that our fundraising is easy. It’s still a struggle every day.
It’s not difficult to raise money to buy food; it’s difficult to raise money for operations. People will give to help feed somebody, but they’re not really interested in paying the light bill.
Q: You said you served 99,000 people. What portion of the population is that?
We’re serving one in eight El Pasoans. And here’s a statistic for you: One in three children is classified as food insecure. Of the 99,000, 57 percent are households with children, 27 percent are children, 21 percent are seniors.
Q: What do you hear from the people who use the food bank? What kind of difference does it make to them?
The stories that we get are incredible. One lady that said, “Thank you for this food. Now, I can go buy my heart medicine.” The things that happen in our society shouldn’t be happening and that’s why we’re here – to make a difference.
The man who gets his medication free from Medicaid and sells it on the black market to buy food, that’s why we’re here. There’s the lady who’s diabetic, losing her sight and having trouble walking. Her husband also had to retire with medical disabilities. With the medications that they need, there’s not enough money for food.
Q: I suspect that people might be surprised to find out who these people really are.
Oh, absolutely. If you really see the face of the hungry in El Paso, it has changed so much. It’s not the guy standing on the corner with the sign anymore. These are hardworking people that are working as hard as they can. They just can’t make ends meet.
And what we’re seeing now is everybody that went to the greener pastures in the oil patch, coming back. Made a whole lot of money. Bought the fancy car, bought the fancy truck and now they’re back. They’re looking for work but need help until they can find it.
Q: So is the Fighting Hunger Food Bank doing better at meeting the needs of the community?
Much better. Three years ago, the food bank was distributing less than 4 million pounds a year, now we’re over 10 million. The national median of meals distributed per person in need is 85 pounds.
In order to be in good standing with Feeding America, we have to be distributing 42 pounds. We’re actually distributing 90 pounds. This food bank is actually performing higher than some other food banks that have been around for decades in this nation.
Q. Who does most of the work around here, paid staff or volunteers?
We have a paid staff of 20 people. We’ve grown greatly in our staff. We’ve got drivers on the road, warehouse workers, a volunteer coordinator, health coordinator, nutritionist, a food sourcer and fund developer.
Q: What about volunteers?
We’ve had 16,207 volunteer hours so far this year. We always need volunteers because every item of that third-party food has to be inspected, sorted and boxed.
Q: How many volunteers are you talking about?
So far this year, 5,946. That’s a big increase over last year.
Q. For people who want to volunteer, what do they do?
To volunteer they could call our volunteer coordinator, Amalia Abeyta, at (915) 298-0353. They can also look on our website at elpasoansfightinghunger.org. It’s necessary to make an appointment to volunteer because we run two shifts a day and one on the weekend. All volunteers are trained when they come in.
Q. What else can people do?
The one thing is how people can help. If they can’t volunteer, if they can’t come down here to work, $1 can be stretched into $11 worth of food. You can take your $1, go to the store and come out with a can. I can take your $1 and go to our suppliers and manufacturers and come back with $11 worth of food.