PHARR — Members of the Texas Army National Guard began setting up the food for distribution at 8 a.m., and there is already a line of cars with people waiting.
The line ends at the Food Bank of the Rio Grande Valley in Pharr and heads down Cage Boulevard before turning left on East U.S. Business 83, extending about a mile.
At 9 a.m., the line begins to move. Some members of the National Guard direct the flow of traffic around the back of the facility to the side of the building. There the traffic is divided into two lanes, forming a Y around boxes of food.
This is the scene of the food bank’s emergency mobile distribution for the general public every Tuesday, the busiest day of the week for the facility.
With the growing need and demand for food up nearly 200%, which is attributed to COVID-19’s impact leading to stay-at-home orders and business closures strangling the local economy and hurting jobs, the Texas Army National Guard has stepped in to help alleviate some of the pressure faced by the food bank.
“It runs even smoother and more efficiently because we’re blessed to have the support of 30 men and women from the Texas Army National Guard,” said Stuart Haniff, chief executive officer of the food bank. “They’re helping actually perform the distribution.”
Wearing gloves, masks and face shields, guard members load supplies into the trunks and backseats of the vehicles in line. The items include eggs, bananas, mangos, tomatoes, bread, pork patties, canned vegetables, and bottles of grapefruit and peach flavored Topo Sabores.
“We have a drive-thru model that’s dual sided, so we can get the cars through twice as fast,” Haniff said.
The food bank holds distributions on Tuesdays and Thursdays, from 9 to 11 a.m., or until capacity is reached, with Thursdays being exclusive for seniors who are 60-years-old or older.
As the pandemic drags on, the food bank continues to see a growth in demand.
“We have our capacity each day,” Haniff said. “We really want to manage our capacities to make sure that everyone is taken care of. We want to take care of everyone and make sure that everyone has enough food.”
Just before 11 a.m., the last car drives off from the facility. The tally for Tuesday’s distribution was about 2,005 individuals served, and 28,398 pounds of food distributed.
“This is an emergency distribution, so it’s basically geared for people that don’t have any other food in their homes,” Haniff said. “It’s very well organized because our National Guard do such a great job of keeping order, preventing any kind of chaos. Cars are flowing through orderly.”
The food bank is also getting help from local legislators, including Sens. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa and Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., along with Reps. Ryan Guillen, Armando “Mando” Martinez, Eddie Lucio III, Sergio Muñoz Jr., Bobby Guerra, Oscar Longoria, Terry Canales and Alex Dominguez. They sent a joint letter to Rio Grande Valley congressional leadership in Washington D.C., requesting that additional federal aid and safety equipment be made available for the food bank.
In addition, Canales, Martinez and Lucio III were able to raise and donate $21,570 to provide over 100,000 meals for the food bank.
The food bank has also started a campaign called the Resource, Readiness, Response Campaign, whose goal is to provide an additional 1 million meals to the Valley’s needy.
“We’ve seen demand grow all across the Valley,” said Haniff. “We’re at a 200% increase and climbing, and we still have not hit the peak. We continue to be proactive and not reactive, and we preach a message of being prepared and not scared.”
To help support the Food Bank of the Rio Grande Valley, monetary donations can be made by visiting the food bank’s website, www.foodbankrgv.com.
“Just one dollar provides enough food for five complete meals,” Haniff said. “Every dollar is critical now to help close that gap. We haven’t reached the peak. We’re anticipating 1 million meals, but it’s a moving target. There’s no script or playbook for this. We’re continually trying to adapt and make sure that we manage the need.”