Staggering Numbers, Staggering Response
Every dollar given to High Plains Food Bank provides six meals to someone facing hunger or food insecurity. And over the past year, this organization has provided more meals than ever before.
“For us, the change happened in seven days’ time,” remembers Zack Wilson, executive director. “With kids not returning from Spring Break in March 2020 to the shutdown of our economy, almost instantly we had around 20 times more need for assistance—in a week’s time. We were struggling with that.”
HPFB distributes food to the top 29 counties in the Texas Panhandle, working through partner agencies like senior centers, churches, soup kitchens and emergency food pantries. In the early weeks of the pandemic, Wilson and his team wondered how—or even if—HPFB would be able to meet the incredible needs facing this area.
Pre-pandemic, the organization had already been assisting an average of 9,000 households every month. Then businesses shut down. Employees got furloughed or lost income. “Reality came crashing down hard,” Wilson says.
The growing numbers of food-insecure families weren’t the only issue, though. A perfect storm of challenges hit the area all at once. The early uncertainty forced vulnerable individuals to stay home, unable to access food or safely visit grocery stores. On the supply side, national constraints caused other problems. The famous 2020 toilet paper shortage dominated the early days of COVID-19, but meat and other staples also began to disappear from shelves.
“The acquisition side was just riddled with challenges,” Wilson says. Then prominent distribution channels began to close as partner agencies paused their services. At the food bank itself and in hotspots like Nazareth, volunteers were coming down sick and staying home. Familiar fundraising activities, like canned food drives, suddenly seemed like an impossibility.
This required an immediate pivot for food banks all over the United States, and Wilson and his team were quick to rethink their approach. Working with agencies across the Panhandle, they set up drive-thru food distribution centers, where social distancing and no-contact deliveries could be done safely. HPFB gave away more food in April 2020 than any April in the organization’s history.
But with the national supply chain still clogged up, it required the rest of the Panhandle to step up to solve the problem. “Our local producers and agriculture came through,” Wilson says. “They began donating what they were producing—beef or vegetables or potatoes, dairy, cheese. Everyone came together.” More than three million pounds of food, much of it local, came into the food bank over a matter of weeks.
In early May, HPFB partnered with these agriculture communities and Hillside Church for a temporary food pantry at Thompson Park. Thousands of families lined up in their vehicles to receive food packs containing eggs, cheese, two gallons of milk, five pounds of ground beef and more.
The numbers continued to climb into the summer: After averaging
9,000 assisted households every month for years, the food bank
helped 9,700 households in April. By July 2020, they were serving 11,000 households. “That’s the month we also distributed one million pounds of food,” he says. “It was tremendous going from where we were to where we are now.”
Today, the food bank still averages assistance to 10,000 households a month. Even though the supply chain eased up and the economy has largely reopened, the pandemic has created a new normal for
Wilson says the generosity of the Texas Panhandle is the reason his organization has been able to continue meeting so many needs during such a difficult time. “When we started seeing things come tumbling down last year, we were thinking, ‘How in the world are we going to do this?’ All of a sudden, resources started flowing in,” he says. Monetary donations. Food donations. “And it just hasn’t stopped yet. I relay this to my peers and colleagues from around the country and some are just amazed. It’s all directly related to the generosity of the folks here in the Texas Panhandle.”
All things considered, the crisis left the food bank in a better place,
with new ideas, new partnerships and the capacity to meet more needs than ever before. But Wilson still dreams of additional volunteers. “One of those areas where we seriously dropped off last year was our volunteers,” he says. That outcome is more the fault of temporary closures and social distancing than a declining desire to help. But it has taken time to get that pipeline flowing again.
“With a decreased volunteer base, when it comes to getting donated food in our doors, that responsibility falls on our staff. Our volunteers are what make that happen,” Wilson says. “Our biggest need right now is for committed groups of 10 to 15 folks who’d be willing to come out and work a couple of hours. The time really goes by very quick.”
To learn more about High Plains Food Bank, make a financial donation, or sign up to volunteer, visit hpfb.org.