In The Vastness Of West Texas, Causes Of Food Insecurity Vary By Where You Live

In Midland-Odessa, people reach out to food banks for short-term aid. But in El Paso, underemployment means people often need longer-term help.

By Morgan Kuehler & Laura RiceFebruary 19, 2019 11:09 am,

On Tuesday, representatives from Texas food banks will gather at the Capitol to talk with legislators about food insecurity, and to lobby for ways the state can help. Food insecurity is a bigger problem than some may think. The term doesn’t just describe people who are going hungry; it also describes people who don’t have the household resources to consistently buy healthy food.

Texas is a big state in terms of population, and it ranks among the top states in the country for food insecurity. At any given time, more than 4.3 million Texans don’t know where their next meal is coming from. That’s complicated by the fact that Texas is also a a vast state, which means it can be hard for healthy food to reach everyone equally. 

Feeding America is a national organization that works to make sure areas in need are serviced by a food bank. It establishes food banks that will work with local agencies to distribute food to those who need it, including West Texas Food Bank in the Midland-Odessa area.

“If you think of a partner agency of ours, it’s gonna be either a soup kitchen, or a food pantry, or a church, or a community center, or just a place where people can come [and] kinda shop for free,” says Craig Stoker, West Texas Food Bank’s director of marketing and communications.  “We want to make sure that we’ve got food available for them and we’re able to help them in their time of need.”

West Texas Food Bank is one of two food banks serving the large West Texas region. It was established in 1985, and is one the largest nonprofits in the area; it serves Midland-Odessa and 17 surrounding counties. The other is the El Pasoans Fighting Hunger Food Bank, which serves three counties at the westernmost tip of the state. It’s the youngest food bank in the country, and didn’t become a fully independent organization until the summer of 2016. Both food banks face the challenge of feeding people who live in the arid and barren Chihuahuan Desert. 

“One thing that is unique is that we are in a food desert,” says Libby Campbell, executive director of the West Texas Food Bank. “We don’t really have access to fresh-grown food.”

Susan Goodell is CEO of the food bank in El Paso, and she’s been there for a little over a year. Before that, she ran a food bank in Detroit, which she says was surrounded by agriculture.

“Here in El Paso, we don’t have that luxury … and what crops [that] are grown here are often products that are not edible, like cotton,” Goodell says.

Not only are the food banks located in a literal desert, but they’re also located in food deserts. Food deserts are areas that lack access to fresh fruit, vegetables and other healthful foods. They’re also short on whole-food providers, so people have to rely on convenience stores that stock sugar- and fat-laden processed foods that are known to cause obesity.

“The thought about organic and fresh produce is that it’s more expensive – and that is the case,” Goodell says. “You know, you can go to the grocery store and buy a couple of apples or you can buy a whole bag of chips, and if you’re trying to stretch that food dollar you’re gonna go for the chips. It’s gonna feed your kids longer than two apples.”

Fresh produce ends up being more expensive in West Texas than in other parts of the state because the region is so remote. Food has to be transported hundreds of miles to the grocery stores or the food banks.

“We are essentially forced to bring a lot of food in from other parts of the country to feed hungry people here in El Paso,” Goodell says.

That’s also true for the Midland-Odessa area.

But the reasons why people are going hungry in those two regions are different. It’s somewhat counterintuitive, but in Midland-Odessa, it’s the booming economy that’s causing people to need the West Texas Food Bank’s services.

“Right now we’re in an oil boom, which is an amazing thing. Oil booms are always good for West Texas and [the] West Texas economy. They bring lots of exciting things to our communities,” Campbell of the West Texas Food Bank says. “But they also have kind of an ugly underbelly that comes with a boom, which is the high cost of living.”

It’s a different story in El Paso.

“Cost of living is relatively low here in El Paso, which is a positive thing. But salaries are also very low. Wages are incredibly low here,” Goodell says. “Unemployment is not a problem here in El Paso. Many of our people are working two and three jobs.”

The differences don’t stop there. West Texas Food Bank’s Craig Stoker says when people need food bank services in his area it’s normally for short-term reasons.

“A lot of people live paycheck to paycheck, and if you think about it and you need a car repair or you have an emergency doctor bill or vet bill or something that’s gonna take up that paycheck … what are you going to do for food?” Stoker says.

But in El Paso, many people are chronically underemployed and tend to need food-bank services long term.

“I think the number of people in need here is less well-documented than many cities in the United States,” Goodell says.

At the Texas Capitol Tuesday, advocates from different food banks will be asking for different things. But they’re all coming together to accomplish two main goals. First, they want to renew and expand their grant from the Texas Department of Agriculture. This grant provides money that is distributed between the 21 food banks statewide, and  is used to rescue produce from local growers that may otherwise be wasted, then store it and distribute it to clients. Second, they want to establish a so-called ready food fund for disaster relief. Advocates say it would save the state from having to spend money buying food during disasters, and would expand the storage capacity at food banks so they can help people more effectively during emergencies. Altogether, the food banks are asking for about $50 million. That may seem like a lot, but Goodell says it’s necessary.

“So many of us are just a paycheck away from needing help, and that help often comes in the form of having food on the table,” Goodell says.