AUSTIN (KXAN) — Long lines of cars snaked through makeshift distribution sites in the early days of the pandemic in Texas, as masked volunteers piled food into trunks. At that point, the Central Texas Food Bank experienced a 30% increase in demand from normal. The need leveled out as unemployment benefits kicked in, but never returned to pre-pandemic levels. The demand eventually elevated again as unemployment benefits ended.

The summer months have traditionally always been very busy for the food bank, even before the pandemic. With kids at home, utility bills are often higher. There are still a lot of people in need, said Derrick Chubbs, president and CEO of the Central Texas Food Bank.

“The economy got turned upside down. The Federal Reserve tells us that, at least they told us several months ago during the pandemic, a disproportionate amount of Americans only have $400 dollars put away for a rainy day,” Chubbs said.

Texas Pandemic Unemployment Benefits

Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or PUA, is a program that temporarily expands unemployment stability to eligible self-employed workers, freelancers, independent contractors and part-time workers affected by the coronavirus pandemic. This program was established by the CARES Act, a $2 trillion coronavirus emergency stimulus package passed into law on March 27, 2020.

As of June 26, 2021, all federal pandemic unemployment benefits officially ended in Texas. The benefits provided money from the federal government, in addition to however much money the person was approved for when they applied for state benefits. Individuals must now return to work or find some other means of support. This comes as many find they still need financial relief to buy food for their families and other everyday essentials.

“While we’ve seen the highest numbers experienced during the peaks of the pandemic decline somewhat, hunger is still a major problem here and the numbers are still higher than we saw prior to the pandemic. While the tide is rising for some, there are some areas within our service territory where the numbers haven’t moved much at all. One in seven Central Texans and one in five Central Texas kids still face hunger,” said Paul Gaither, Marketing and Communications director for the Central Texas Food Bank.

Although there has been tremendous progress with the state of the world since last spring, COVID-19 is far from over. In March 2020, Travis and Williamson County combined reported nearly 129,000 confirmed cases. There are people with underlying conditions who have not received a vaccine, which makes them even more vulnerable to the virus.

Teams of volunteers from the Central Texas Food Bank load up cars during a drive-thru food distribution at Del Valle High School. (KXAN Photo)

“The pandemic disproportionately impacted those individuals, already at that level. The problem is that the recovery period for any major disaster — let’s say a hurricane or tornado instead — any major natural disaster takes around four to six months for individuals to recover. You know, we were in a pandemic and then a freeze for 15 months so we don’t expect our friends and neighbors to recover from this for months and months. The cost of living can be very expensive for the average Austin resident, which means that a lot of families do not have a lot of extra money set aside for natural disasters and unexpected events,” Chubbs said.

Over the years, the economy of Austin has changed, which impacts the cost of living. In Austin, right now the average price to rent an apartment is about $1,400. Even without the pandemic to contend with, it’s vital that there is assistance available for people in need. Chubbs says the demand from the food bank has been overwhelming and they are in need of more donations and volunteers.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, we literally had to decrease our volunteer numbers by 70% just to maintain social distancing. We’re still there — to balance it out we brought in additional partnerships, we added extra shifts for volunteers just to try to make up that difference,” Chubbs said.

The Austin Chamber of Commerce shared that Austin has regained 97% of last spring’s pandemic-related job losses. As of May, the seasonally-adjusted unemployment rate has decreased from 4.8% to 4.6%. This small progress is a step towards getting the number of Austin residents who are in need of general unemployment and food bank assistance back to pre-pandemic levels. The job growth and unemployment rate number in Austin can be tracked through the Chamber’s website.

The food bank has partnered with different donors who decided to match with them this year. Every dollar that is donated will provide eight meals for individuals and families. More information about providing volunteer services or donations can be found on its website.