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The Number

002: Hunger



- [Karen] Support for this podcast is provided by the Tecovas Foundation. From Panhandle PBS, I'm Karen Welch. And this is The Number. A podcast where we add context to the statistics that help define our local community. Today's number is actually a ratio and it's heartbreaking. One in five. That's how many people across the Texas Panhandle could be food insecure in 2020, according to a new report from Feeding America. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, that ratio was one in seven and our region had higher numbers than the nation as a whole. Being food insecure means being without reliable access to enough affordable, nutritious food.

- [Zack] So it's hard to wrap your mind around, but that is the need that we've been seeing.

- [Karen] Zack Wilson is the executive director of the High Plains Food Bank, which serves the 26 counties of the Texas Panhandle and three more counties in the South Plains.

- [Zack] Pretty much everyone is at risk of becoming food insecure, at any portion of the scale, whether it be on the low end where you're maybe skipping a meal or two, because you can't get out or you're trying to make things stretch for another meal, or you have kids in the household and you're feeding first all the way up to chronic food insecure households, which are zero food in the house. No job, just looking for a way to survive. Of course, these are estimates, but they go right in line with, you know, our distribution amount in June, where we were prior to COVID-19, sitting at about an estimated 15% of folks in the Texas Panhandle being anywhere on that scale of being food insecure is now closer to 20% in a matter of three months' time. So that's literally one in five folks now in our area that are now into this situation that they've never been before or has compounded even more due to what's going on and, and need some help. Right now.

- [Karen] And as far as children go?

- [Zack] The estimates for child food insecurity also jumped. Where it was one in four has now jumped to one in three or a little over 34% now estimated children in households that it is a, a huge number for the Texas Panhandle for something that we wouldn't imagine we would have been in, you know, in early March, we were now, that's our new reality, as we're moving through the summertime.

- [Karen] Emily Englehard is Managing Director of Thought Leadership and Research at Feeding America.

- [Emily] The most recent estimates of food insecurity that come out of the USDA, we then work to get those at the county level. At the local level. So we're just putting out our estimates for 2018 last month. And we were seeing actually the lowest levels of food insecurity that we had seen since the recession, the great recession. So, you know, about 10 years later, we're finally getting back to where we were. And now, with the coronavirus pandemic and the, you know, just striking impact on the economy and on public health, we're estimating that those food insecurity rates are going to go back up and actually surpass what we saw during the great recession.

- [Karen] That is a frightening thought.

- [Emily] It is.

- [Karen] So we would erase any gains we made, and it would, it would take us back to worse than we were during that time. What does it look like as far as how many people across the country?

- [Emily] So the projections at the national level would take us to 54.3 million people experiencing food insecurity. That's an additional 17.1 million above the 2018 data, which are the most recent available.

- [Karen] So let's stop here a minute and repeat that. 15 million more people in the US are projected to need food in 2020 than were before the pandemic. And 26,000 of those folks are in the food bank service area.

- [Emily] I took a look at Potter County, and then I took a look in Texas overall and Texas and Potter County are pretty similar actually in terms of rates, they're higher than the national average where Texas really sticks out is actually in sheer numbers. Whether you're looking at the 2018 data for food insecurity or child food insecurity, Texas actually has the highest number of individuals or of children in the entire country. And then for the projection, it continues to have the highest number of children who will be living in food insecure households. We look at rates and we look at numbers. It's important to understand what percent of the population is experiencing food insecurity or in this case who we think may experience food insecurity due to the pandemic. It's important also to just think about sheer numbers of people and in Texas, we're talking about, let's see, I wrote this down, 5.8 million people in terms of projected food insecurity and 2.3 million in terms of children. That's nearly one in three children in the state of Texas.

- [Karen] How do you arrive at these projections?

- [Emily] So, we started with the most recent recession that we've experienced, the great recession. And we took a look at how unemployment and poverty changed in the first year of the recession and then in the second year of the recession. In the model that we use to estimate community level food insecurity, two of the major drivers are unemployment and poverty. So by thinking about how they changed for the great recession, we were able to input those into our model to see what food insecurity would look like. We created three scenarios, actually. The first two were based on year one and then year two of the recession. And then we created a third that was a more severe based on some more severe assumptions. And we have been really regularly checking the underlying assumptions against projections that are coming out of, you know, other external sources. So Goldman Sachs, the Congressional Budget Office, the wall street journal survey of economists. And we're actually finding that our unemployment projections are squaring pretty closely with those projections. And that's for the most severe scenario.

- [Karen] With extra surges in COVID happening in Texas and other States, do you feel the need to revise those projections again?

- [Emily] Well. The projections are intended to be annual. So it's really the projection of food insecurity for calendar year 2020. However, yes, I mean, over the next few months, we're going to be paying close attention to see whether or not we need to make some adjustments.

- [Karen] Zack Wilson has worked at High Plains Food Bank for 15 years, meaning he was there during the recession that began at the end of 2007.

- [Zack] But that was a more of a trickle down effect here in the Texas Panhandle. It took a little while for it to reach here, but it did. Effects of a decreasing economy, in some of our rural areas led to folks needing help with, with food. And of course, with the growing median age of our population in rural counties and fixed incomes, we were definitely serving right around 9,000 households in our 29 counties prior to March. And we thought that, you know, recession hit hard, when the COVID-19 outbreak struck the Texas Panhandle, it was literally in a turn of a week that we saw requests for food help increase at least 20 times over what it was prior to this--

- [Karen] 20 times?

- [Zack] Yeah. 20 times over, people calling needing help, whether it be on a longterm, short term, we saw a lot of folks that were either furloughed or laid off. And definitely were not expecting that and did not have any disposable income and needed help immediately. To give you kind of a snapshot of how things have increased for us, in March, we distributed over 733,000 pounds of food. In April, we jumped to about 849,000 pounds of food distributed. April was a very low inventory month for us. Was kind of anxious, in the huge amount of demand that we were seeing. It was still hard to get things in here. We had upwards of seven truckloads of planned food loads to us canceled--

- [Karen] Wow.

- [Zack] Because it couldn't meet the demands, but a lot of donated product came in and we offset that and obviously increased even then. In May, we distributed 884,000 pounds of food. We started to see a lot more of the food finally start coming in, thanks to financial support in ordering.

- [Karen] How was June?

- [Zack] In June, we had a record month as far as distribution goes here at the food bank, we distributed over 1.1 million pounds of food to our entire service area. 1.1 million pounds of food is, is almost the same size as about 27 and a half semi-tractor loads of food that was delivered out.

- [Karen] At first, everybody had to close to the public. So what did you do when that first happened?

- [Zack] For us, you know, volunteers are the backbone of, of what we do. And when we had to make the choice based on what was going on here in the Amarillo area, it was something, you know, we, we had to do, there was no question about that, but it's a gap that was filled by our staff. We set aside every afternoon, we were packing boxes. We were sorting food. We were making sure that some of these volunteer, these previous volunteer-driven activities were still happening because we depended on every box, every food item coming in.

- [Karen] Amarillo resident, Gina Lawler worried that folks might not be able to access the food bank. So she started a pantry in her own neighborhood.

- [Gina] So I just went to the store and bought some groceries, stuck in a little cooler and stuck it out by the, you know, by the little walkway out by my mailbox, and put a sign up, it just says, please look what you need. Please only take what you need, and donate if you can, to pay it forward. And I, I did that for a while. And then I got messages through the Panhandle Mutual Aid Page that people were real receptive to that; they were coming by pickin' up stuff. And I didn't, I wouldn't go out there and meet them. I would just go out after they left and replenish things. And I did that on my own for a few weeks, and then people started messaging me saying, hey, we would like to donate. So I had various people come by and I would just tell them through messages and things just to go ahead and drop it off at my porch. I would put it out. And then I would take a picture and make a post on Panhandle Mutual Aid Page, and thank them publicly. And so that's what I did for a couple of months.

- [Karen] What was the response?

- [Gina] The response was really well. I would have probably 10 people a week come by sometimes 20 to pick up items. And several times I would notice cars, 'cause my dog barked. And so I would look out front. So I kinda noticed the same vehicles coming by, which was okay with me. They needed it. So it helped. I know it helped the same family several times. I also had people that I've noticed that on their message boards to the Panhandle Mutual Aid Page, I noticed that they might need some extra help. So there were times I just boxed up stuff and delivered it to them as well.

- [Karen] Did you know anything about any of the situations they were in?

- [Gina] The only, the only situation that we did kind of get a personal thing on was one had moved here from up North and they had only been here for a couple months and she couldn't get around. And she lived with her dad and her two younger siblings and they didn't have any way to get food. So my husband and I took food over there and I've watched some of her posts on that page. And I still think they're still in some pretty dire circumstances. So we try to help them out from time to time. I think they moved here like three weeks before it hit.

- [Karen] Pretty hard to get established in a pandemic.

- [Gina] It was very, it was a very difficult situation for them. And still is.

- [Karen] Did any of them try to contact you and say Thank you?

- [Gina] Several of them did through Facebook messenger. And then several of them left sweet notes. They were just written on like an envelope or a receipt or whatever they had, but it was just basically like, we'll get to eat tonight. Thank you so much for blessing our family. Just simple things. You know?

- [Karen] Right.

- [Gina] Things that you wouldn't realize that just, you know, some frozen food and some pantry staples, that's going to help somebody that much. 'Cause I've never had to be in that position. It's kind of humbling to think of what's goin' on, you know?

- [Karen] What have you learned about hunger in our community from this experience?

- [Gina] That I really didn't know how badly it existed. And I don't know if that's due to, you know, the COVID, or people were, obviously people go hungry in our town every day, but I was not that aware of it until this hit.

- [Karen] We have had a number of people who need help, but do you feel like even more we're pushed over the edge?

- [Gina] Mm-hmm, exactly. And they have to probably make a choice of food or electricity.

- [Karen] Here again is Zack Wilson.

- [Zack] The systematic, you know, shut down of our economy, really in a matter of a couple of weeks after, we started seeing a huge increase, has really affected who we serve now. Y'know, we're seeing a lot of newly unemployed folks ranging from college age students all the way up to middle age.

- [Karen] Others, including seniors have been unable to shop due to the COVID-19 cases in their communities or physical conditions that make them vulnerable to the virus.

- [Zack] We heard from one senior, for example, in one County that was able to get out and go shopping. And she was not in a place where food was hard to come by, but because of a positive case in their household, they are restricted and she recovered and she, for her own safety, she's staying in until this resides over. So we're, we're helping all kinds of folks from all different age ranges now, whether it be from a job furlough, or a loss, or a fixed income, or simply cannot get out; are home bound.

- [Karen] Engelhard with Feeding America said the distancing necessary to slow the spread of COVID-19 forced innovation.

- [Emily] Sitting on the research and the research department and the national office having a little bit less touch with the food banks on the ground, I have been just blown away by the incredible innovation and partnerships and approaches that food banks have been using to address, which is really, I mean, it's kind of a triple whammy. There's more demand. We had fewer donations of food and then there are all these disruptions to our food assistance operating model. Like how do you do low-touch volunteering? How do you let people choose their groceries while maintaining social distancing? And there are programs that are coming out of this, meal deliveries, order ahead that I think have the potential to really transform the charitable food system in a good way.

- [Karen] During the school year, while Amarillo independent school districts serve free breakfast and lunches to students, High Plains Food Bank took the dinner shift at nine campuses.

- [Zack] Well, initially when we began the meal service after spring break, we geared it for the children through this, through this drive-through model because they were accustomed to beginning to come through for breakfast and lunch. And then to pick up school, homework packets for the week, were doing a drive-through line with a brown bag warm meal to go and limiting contact and making it as convenient as possible. And we've expanded that into apartment complexes and some churches as well as we're officially in the summertime, we're altering kind of our summer meal service to reach pockets of children and families that may be in apartments and really kind of bringing the meals to them to help out.

- [Karen] Because some of them don't have a way to get to a giveaway location?

- [Zack] Yeah. You know, you've got the issue of transportation and then just even public transportation these days and meeting the precautions that we're all recommended to take, to protect ourselves and just back to the sheer uncertainty of wanting to get out. And these are meals that are prepared in our community kitchen, at a building that we have here on site that is constantly preparing meals every single day. We want to make sure that the entire family is as fed.

- [Karen] Feeding America puts a special focus on child Hunger. Here again is Emily Englehard.

- [Emily] Food insecurity can be just really devastating to children's health and has some really negative longterm health outcomes. So, you know, anything from short term, more likely to be hospitalized may have behavioral issues to chronic disease, like asthma. And then for adolescents, you see food insecurity associated with depression and suicidal ideation. And then that just, in adults is a whole 'nother host, diabetes, hypertension, decreased nutrient intake. We just see a number of really deleterious outcomes for people who are food insecure, especially if they stay in that state for longer periods of time.

- [Karen] Those difficulties that, that children and adults begin to have while being food insecure, where do we see those in the community?

- [Emily] That's a great question. I think there's a bit of a vicious cycle that can happen, especially in that intersection between health and food insecurity when you're in a community, for example, with high food costs. And it's really challenging to afford healthy food. Foods that they would need to maintain better health that could help you maintain any sort of diet-related disease like diabetes. Then if you get really sick, you may not be able to work. You may have extraordinarily high healthcare costs that basically puts you under for the long term in terms of making ends meet.

- [Karen] It is a cycle.

- [Emily] Yeah, it is. And just on the sort of bigger question around who, I think it would be remiss not to mention more and more data are coming out about food insecurity and people of color. So specifically African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans all have disproportionately high levels of food insecurity. Even before the pandemic. There's been lots of talk around what the sort of underlying structures and systems are that have allowed that to happen. And I think the pandemic has really put a new lens on how access to health care access to food, access, to jobs, all of these other entangled experiences that really do increase food insecurity are coming together and making it especially difficult for these populations to, to, you know, live a healthy life with access to food.

- [Zack] Our response needs to be sustained because the demand is still there. We were, I think we're kind of cresting on the immediate short term effects and, and really, now transitioning into, you know, the longer term effects; people realizing what's their job status gonna look like? What they need to do for their family. So, you know, we continuously need support to make this happen. And we have had a, had a donor come in who, who helped us kind of revitalize half of our fleet. And we also, in that, we received two new semi tractor trucks and trailers to help with our distribution. So it has been very helpful, the support of everyone is what has allowed us to respond. And we just need that to continue. And in the conversation I had just recently with, with a person who is interested in donating and setting up a reoccurring donation and said, I'm sorry, I know this isn't very much per month. And I said, you know what? It is. Because of the value of a dollar. And when it comes to us, $1 is about the equivalent of five meals that we can provide. And whether it's $50 a month, you know, we can make that stretch.

- [Karen] How much of what you do is supported through funds from these federal programs and how much is dependent on donations of support?

- [Zack] About 85% of what we receive on our, our support is from donations privately funded, whether it be individuals to corporate, to, you know, private foundations and grant opportunities to organizations, churches stepping up, to the remaining 15% or so is through some, some reimbursement programs that we received through USDA, but it is heavily supported by everyone here in the Texas Panhandle. It's neighbors helping neighbors. It was always eyeopening to me that even prior to this, that we were slightly worse than the national average right here in the Texas Panhandle right here in our own backyard. Prior to March of 2020, we saw, you know, about one in seven individuals here in the Texas Panhandle are estimated to be food insecure. The national average was one and eight. Now we can definitely see that number worsen for us as people are out of work and people who have struggled before this are continuing to struggle. This was a game changer on so many different levels. And to have it happen all at once is something that I don't think anybody has seen before. And I obviously hope we don't ever see again, but it shows you how quickly lives can change and things, lifestyles can be turned upside down and uprooted in a moment's notice. And that's something that I know for sure, personally, that I will never ever take for granted again.

- [Karen] If you want to take a look at the Feeding America report to see how food insecurity affects your County, visit, Thank you for joining us. We'll be back next week with more statistics, context and community.

- [Karen] Hey, there it's Karen Welch again. If you're enjoying The Number, a couple of the best things you could do are subscribe and share it with a friend. Thanks for listening.

To learn more about the Impact of the Coronavirus on Local Food Insecurity, click here:

To learn how food insecurity affects your county, visit Feeding America’s interactive map. It shows the 2020 food insecurity projections compared to the most recent Map the Meal Gap data. To account for local unemployment variation, this new analysis adjusts the national annual unemployment projection due to COVID-19 using projected changes in the unemployment rate by industry and occupation from Goldman Sachs Investment Research and actual percentages of workers by industry from the American Community Survey.

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