Finding Food In The Desert: Increasing Number Of Families In West Texas Are Going Hungry

Long distances between residents and food pantries or nearby grocery stores contribute to food insecurity.

By Paul Flahive July 8, 2020 9:58 am, , ,

From Texas Public Radio:

The sun rose over the Chihuahuan desert one June morning, and in Presidio it rose to about 200 cars waiting in line.

Dust and sediment, and open landscape uncluttered by trees make up the area. Roads wind through the Cambrian features to Presidio, the speck of a town on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Before the sun rose, long before it, cars began lining up in the gravel and dirt parking lot set between the town fire station and its baseball fields.

“Yeah, they start lining up at 3 a.m.,” said Giovanni Del Bosque, outreach coordinator for the West Texas Food Bank.

At 7 a.m. — the 200 cars sit in the quickly warming air. The drivers, sleep on their faces, wait for Del Bosque to walk her team through the check in process for this drive-through food distribution.

Paul Flahive / Texas Public Radio

Cars sit parked at a food drive in Presidio.

Mass food distributions have become commonplace across Texas as unprecedented numbers look for help. But there is nothing commonplace about trying to feed the increasing number of families in need across West Texas’ 19 counties, a region roughly the size of Maine.

For instance, Presidio is the farthest the West Texas Food Bank currently travels. Reaching the town is an easy trip, but a four-to-five hour drive isn’t quick.

There is one grocery store in Presidio and it is the only one for nearly 60 miles on the U.S. side of the border. There’s also one in Ojinaga, the small Mexican town opposite Presidio. Not much grows in this desert, so access to fresh food can be tough.

A family looking to access another grocery store or, at this point, even find an open food pantry would have a challenge.

They can drive north to Marfa in an hour on U.S. Highway 67. This highway extends 1,560 miles from Sabula, Iowa near the Illinois border — bending and stretching diagonally across Texas and terminating in Presidio.

Despite their asphalt tether to one another, the residents of Sabula wouldn’t know what to do with themselves in Presidio. The landscape is so different from the Island town in Iowa that it may as well be Mars: “barren” in the terms of an Iowan, “dry” in the terms of anyone, “remote” in terms of a dictionary.

Another route, longer but with a better view, is to Alpine. Heading south on Farm to Market Road 170 they wedge themselves between the Rio Grande and Big Bend Ranch Park.

As they prepare to turn left onto Texas Highway 118 North, they would see the uplifted ring of hills that make up Solitario – Spanish for “lonely.” On many levels, the geological feature fits the area just fine. From there it is a straight shot north between state and national Big Bend parks.

The distance isn’t the only challenge. The food bank in six months has already purchased the same amount of food as it did in all of 2019. Federal support through its Farmers to Families food box program has not reached the food bank.

This program in Texas has missed much of rural Texas. A big reason for this shortcoming is because one of the largest contracts in the southwest went to a San Antonio wedding and event planning company called CRE8AD8 with — at the time — no experience, no facilities and no license to move produce.  It has struggled to deliver on the $39 million contract.  In West Texas, it has failed to deliver any food, cancelling three truck loads of food this week.

As Presidio shows, that failure doesn’t stop the need.

“We’re prepared for 650 today,” said Giovanni Del Bosque, outreach coordinator for the West Texas Food Bank.

That’s 600 in a town of just over 4,000. Before COVID-19 the food bank’s high-water mark was 380. Now they have seen the number shoot up at least 25%. And this is just one of 16 events or distributions they do across the region.

“This is the biggest one by far,” she said “I think our second biggest one has to be Ft. Stockton. We’ve been averaging there about 170.”

National Guardsmen assist West Texas Food Bank staffers.

The line moves quickly thanks to 11 National Guardsmen. The young men and a woman swiftly pack potatoes, oranges, along with frozen taco meat and a box of nonperishables into each vehicle. It’s about 60 pounds of food.

“It won’t get them through the whole month. We figure each load will last about seven to 10 days,” said Kelly Dirden, chief program officer for the West Texas food bank.

Two food pantries in the area are both closed. One because staff were infected with COVID-19.

Presidio, like everywhere, is hurting from the current downturn. Most of the jobs are outside of the town.

“The joke or saying about Presidio is like there are more welding trucks than people,” said Dirden.

And increasingly those trucks are coming home as jobs in oil and construction dry up.

More than a dozen are here for the first time, like José Gueverra who drove a truck for 11 years, most recently for the Big Bend community center. He hasn’t been able to work since March because of the pandemic.

When asked if he thinks there should be more food distributions each month, Gueverra responds through a translator, “Absolutely.”

“He’s got three, three people in his home,” a volunteer said, adding that in addition to his wife he cares for his grandson.

Conrad Lujan is in his 70s and this is his first time getting food here. The old man pulls up in an old truck wearing a cowboy hat and has his social security card outstretched.

A translator explains that before the virus, Lujan was working at a ranch. Now, he’s forced to come to the food bank.

Presidio has high unemployment, so even without COVID, the food bank would be here.

Nancy Garcia is pretty indicative of their clientele. She’s in her 40s and was on food stamps but those ran out.

“It’s been like four months and I haven’t gotten nothing so this is very helpful. My fridge is empty. my cabinets are empty,” she said

She has three adult sons, they have struggled in the past to find work.

“This town is short of jobs, you know, hardly no jobs here. Nobody wants to hire nobody.”

When it’s her turn Garcia asks for more than one load of food, but the staff say no. It’s one box per house.

At 9:45 a.m. it’s more than 80 degrees. The sun is up and they’ve already moved through most of the cars, more than 350. Staff and guardsmen try to stay in the shade of the 60-foot tractor trailer.

Bobby Vandenberg stepped down from the back of a big rig. He has been driving this semi down here, five hours one way, each month for six years.

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Paul Flahive / Texas Public Radio

Hundreds of pounds of food is unloaded for the food drive in Presidio.

They usually don’t move this fast. He praised the work of the National Guard. Today their presence lets them run two lines.

“They give us more opportunities to be focusing more on deliveries than anything else, those have been increasing too,” he said.

The food bank has stopped using volunteers for the most part. So, they rely heavily on the National Guard to pack boxes and help with distributions. This support is currently scheduled to end support in early July.

“What are you gonna do when you lose the guard?” asked a reporter.

“Cry,” said Vandenberg erupting in laughter.

The food bank loses the guard in a couple weeks.

As he locks his trailer up to leave, a few stragglers continue to drive up. Food bank staff hand out what’s left. They distributed food to more than 400 families today, not quite 600.

Vandenberg doesn’t get caught up in numbers. It’s clear to him the need is there.

“How many people do you know will come at 2 o’clock in the morning and park for a box of food, a bag of produce?  Not a lot of people would do that,” he said.

With that he climbs into the cab of his semi-truck. He and four other vehicles make their way back the 250 miles to Midland.

Paul Flahive can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter at @paulflahive.