How the Food Bank of The Rio Grande Valley is fighting food insecurity

Tucked away in a neighborhood of Monte Alto, a rural community on the northern side of Hidalgo County’s Precinct 1 is Veterans Park, an area that was been labeled as a food desert. Think of a desert, but unlike a place full of sand with a water scarcity, this desert is scarce of food. Without easy access to supermarkets with fresh vegetables, people rely on convenient stores and fast food.

It may come as a surprise to many in the Rio Grande Valley that in spite of all the fancy restaurant, bars and upscale malls, there is a high poverty and with it high food insecurity.

According to U.S. Census data Brownsville is the poorest city in the United States and McAllen is third the poorest as measured by the percentage of people living below the poverty level (32.4% and 31.5% respectively) and living on an income of less than $12,085 a year.

Due to the high poverty rate and underemployment (the average wage in the Valley is 30% below the national average), the Food Bank estimates put food insecurity as high as 1 in 5 people, significantly higher than the national average.

Omar Rodriguez, Manager of Communication & Advocacy with the Food Bank of the Rio Grande Valley thinks the numbers are worse. It impacts the children the hardest. From the Food Bank accounts, the estimate is close to 50 percent of children face food insecurity.

Food insecurity is defined as “the state of being without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food.” What it really means to a family is not knowing where your next meal might come from.

“What this means is either the household or those certain individuals throughout last year had to decide whether they were going to be paying their bills or providing nutritious food for their family,” Rodriguez said.

“Nutritious food” is the key. Without access to fresh fruits and vegetables the problem of food insecurity is exacerbated by poor health. Eating prepared and fast food leads to obesity, diabetes and many other chronic conditions.

This is not only bad for those directly impacted but for the community as a whole who will share the burden of caring for them.

This is where organizations like the Food Bank comes into play. The Food Bank of the Rio Grande Valley is the nation’s 43rd largest Food Bank. They distributed more than 72 million pounds of food a year.

But delivering the food sometimes becomes a problem because the two main things the Food Bank of the Rio Grande Valley is suffering from are a shortage of trucks, the money to go along with those trucks and volunteers.

“We’re first responders,” Rodriguez said. “Like every Food Bank.”

And the Food Bank of the Rio Grande Valley has responded not only within their coverage area but others too. When Corpus Christi had a water problem, when Granjeno suffered a windstorm and of course when Hurricane Harvey devastated the Coastal Bend, the Food Bank responded.

As emergencies occur volunteers heed the call and will work at the Food Bank. But often times Rodriguez says people forget to volunteer when there isn’t a major catastrophe or major holiday.

“When Hurricane Harvey hit we had over 300 volunteers but now we’re short,” he said. “We need to have volunteers, groups and businesses get into their system of coming out to volunteer every week.”

This is what the Food Bank of the Rio Grande Valley wants the public to understand, hunger exists all year long not only when emergencies happen.

Food Bank In Action

Today Yara Doyle, Retail Partnership Manager with the Food Bank will organize a food giveaway at Veterans Park for the community of Monte Alto, Hidalgo County Precinct 1 commissioner David Fuentes and his employees are there to assist in the effort to give the food away.

At 7 a.m. on an unusual cold morning a county employee greets a truck from the Food Bank of the Rio Grande Valley. In the parking lot they unload 12 pallets of produce, which includes bell peppers, tomatoes, squash, lemons, watermelons and lettuce.

“Because there isn’t a presence here already we wanted to make sure we extended these services as much as we could,” Fuentes said. “Every month we’ll have a presence out here with the Food Bank to distribute food.”

The residents in the area have been waiting for this event ever since the commissioner and his staff did a block walk to spread the word that food was on the way. This is the second event in his precinct, which encompasses the eastern part of the county. Another event will occur in Hargill the following week. The cycle will continue as they attempt to reach as many people as possible in the Rio Grande Valley.

By 9 a.m. about 20 cars have lined up in the parking lot of Veterans Park out to the street. A constable was called to direct traffic. Veterans Park is labeled a Community Resource Center (CRC) and locations like this are where Doyle and her staff, which consists of mainly volunteers, give food away to the community.

The distribution of this amount of food has not always been the case. Up until recently Doyle would struggle to find people willing to participate in the giveaways, but now she has two a week lined up.

Over the last decade the face of hunger has changed significantly. It is not only those living in squalor but neighborhoods. Many are professionals now, a lot of people in cul-de-sac neighborhoods that will go days without a meal.

The Food Bank also partners with the produce industry, retail industry and state and federal governments to get actual food. With their 28-foot and 53-foot trucks the Food Bank will actually deliver food to the food deserts.

On average, they help feed up to 42,000 on a weekly basis via 250 Partner Agencies.

Literally thousands of pounds of fresh produce get delivered to food deserts every year around the 3,600 square miles that encompasses the Food Bank’s coverage area.

Being First Responders Is Only Part Of The Mission

The four main food programs at the Food Bank of the Rio Grande Valley, Inc. are the Emergency Food Program, Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP), Operation Kid Pack, Product Recovery and Kids Cafe.

The Food bank is highly focused on the youngest and most vulnerable in our community. Malnutrition affects learning and cognitive abilities. Early intervention can help avoid social and academic problems leading to more successful children.

The Operation Kid Pack Program provides nutritious, healthy food to hungry children and distributes the food to them discreetly. Currently, the program serves 450 children per month through nine elementary schools, middle schools, Boys and Girls Clubs and community centers in Hidalgo, Cameron and Willacy counties.

Reaching The Public For Support

Being first responders is difficult when there is a shortage of money. The Food Bank needs money to offset overtime, fuel and other costs.

For an entity to convey a message advertising helps but with zero advertising budget the Food Bank relies on grassroots efforts.

The use of social media also helps but professional relationships with large entities like Bert Ogden, UTRGV, the City of Pharr and the City of Edinburg to name a few, help exponentially in conveying their message. Rodriguez said currently the partnerships they maintain have been done without any budget.

The Food Bank also has Empty Bowls, their largest fundraiser of the year. At the event guests choose hand-painted bowls by artists and volunteers. The bowl is a reminder that there are still many “Empty Bowls” in the community that need to be filled.

There is a heartfelt awareness for the Food Bank of The Rio Grande Valley’s mission but there needs to be more public funding. Edinburg and Pharr have been supportive with Community Development Block Grants and Hidalgo County has helped with Urban County funds.

Ending food insecurity is not an unsolvable problem. Hunger can be eradicated with one or two percent funding from city government. Rodriguez admits more cities need to be called upon but if there was 100 percent support from every city the incidents of food insecurity would be low and there would be a healthier population.

A healthier population would make the Rio Grande Valley stronger candidates for corporations to come set up shop.

“Once you have a healthier community,” Rodriguez said. “You’re going to have a healthier workforce.”

A healthier workforce would make things better across the board for the Rio Grande Valley. The economy would benefit from it as well.

That is a win for everyone.