Larry Hastings outside Caritas of Austin

photograph by Robert Bryce

Welfare Cuts Leave Food Providers Stretched

Cupboards Are Bare

by Robert Bryce

Larry Hastings has a new job. But he won't be paid for about four weeks. In the meantime, he doesn't have enough money to buy food for his three teenage children. So the 42-year-old lawn maintenance worker arrived early on a hot Wednesday morning at Caritas of Austin, hoping to get a few bags of groceries. Hastings, a tall, thin man dressed in a freshly ironed white shirt, used to receive $118 a month in food stamps. "But that doesn't go too far once you pay your bills. Keeping shoes on the kids' feet is hard," said Hastings, whose children are 16, 14, and 13 years old. "And now that school is starting, it's even worse."

Although Caritas officials were able to give Hastings a couple of bags filled with canned goods and other food stuffs, they worry that they won't be able to continue meeting the demand for food. Over the past few weeks, thousands of Austinites have been cut off from federal food stamp rolls. With no other resource available, they have been turning to food providers like Caritas and El Buen Samaritano.

"We've seen a 58% increase in food distribution to our agencies over the first six months of this year. It's a bigger increase than we had anticipated." -- Robbie Searcy, Capitol Area Food Bank

But Austin's food pantries are running low. Caritas, located on East Seventh Street, typically operates for nine months with the food it collects during its annual food drive. "This year we operated about six months off of it," explains Eileen Earhart Oldag, the agency's executive director. "We have really been in a crunch the last six weeks. We can't get enough food."

At El Buen Samaritano, demand for food has nearly doubled compared to last year. More than 600 families sought food aid from the organization last year, according to Francisco Lopez, the agency's director of community development. By June of this year, 458 families already had visited the agency's small office on South First Street.

The Capitol Area Food Bank -- which provides food to Caritas, the Austin Baptist Chapel, El Buen Samaritano, and more than 200 other food relief organizations in the Austin area -- is especially feeling the pinch.

"We've seen a 58% increase in food distribution to our agencies over the first six months of this year. It's a bigger increase than we had anticipated," says Robbie Searcy, the food bank's communications director. Over the first six months of last year, the agency distributed 1.8 million pounds of food. For the same time period this year, it gave out 2.9 million pounds.

Food shortages are being felt around the country. Food banks in Virginia, Colorado, Georgia, and other states have seen demand for food grow by as much as 68% as some 1.48 million people have lost their food stamp benefits. Here in Austin, it's hard to estimate the exact number of people who have been cut off from food stamps. But those cuts account for only part of the demand for food. Much of the demand appears to be coming from the working poor, people like Debby, a 40-year-old mother of four who asked that her last name not be used. Debby visited El Buen Samaritano a few weeks ago and left with three bags of groceries, including canned goods, a loaf of bread, and a few other items. She has a job in a retail store, but her $800 per month in take-home pay is not enough to keep her family fed. And with a sick husband who is unable to work, she simply can't make ends meet. "People like us that get into binds can't find assistance," says Debby. "If it weren't for a few places like this, there'd be nothing for people like me."

But El Buen Samaritano, like Caritas, is having trouble meeting demand. Lopez walked a visitor through the church's pantry, where the shelves used to be filled with canned goods and other items. Now, they are almost empty, and Lopez is worried. "If the numbers keep going up, we won't be able to fulfill the need and we will need the city or the state or the federal government to help us. This is not something we can do by ourselves."

To donate food to the Capitol Area Food Bank, call 282-2111. Or drop off food at their new facility at 8201 S. Congress. The food bank is open Mon-Fri, 8am-5pm, and Monday and Thursday until 8:30pm. There will be a dedication of the new facility at 10am Saturday, Oct. 25.