With all the fear of a pandemic shutting down cities and businesses, the East Texas Food Bank is working overtime to ensure going hungry isn’t at the top of anyone’s list.

While the March 20 produce drop that was scheduled at the East Texas State Fairgrounds was cancelled, residents can find their local food pantry at EastTexasFoodBank.org for the nearest place to pick up food for their families.

Communications and Marketing Director Lauren Barnes said the organization is also working with Feeding Texas to apply for waivers to help feed children if their school has to close.

Barnes said the ETFB is asking families to limit themselves to one household representative when visiting pantries, to help minimize the risk of spreading any potential COVID-19 infection, if residents are able to safely leave family members at home.

The food bank will be working to prepare more boxes of foods as they monitor the situation, after the coronavirus was classified as a pandemic and cancellations and closures began to roll in.

Celia Cole, CEO of Feeding Texas said it is especially important to have a plan for students if they’re unable to attend class.

“About two-thirds of Texas school children rely on either a free or low cost lunch at school,” she said. “Any time a kid is going without that, even in summer time, we see an increase in hunger and worry about kids getting fed.”

One solution is allowing schools to adopt a grab-and-go approach where families can come by the school to pick up a meal. Cole said a federal entitlement program through the US Department of Agriculture would allow schools to do so and any child who comes by would get a meal, regardless of whether they attended that campus.

“If the school shuts down, we want to make sure we have access to those meals,” she said. “The USDA has already approved waivers in California and Washington.”

Another waiver they have applied for would temporarily eliminate the need to apply for commodities assistance, enabling food banks to more easily serve new clients.

Cole said the organization had a meeting with the Texas Department of Emergency Management where they also discussed the possibility of doing door-to-door delivery if the situation turns dire.

“No one right now thinks it’s going to get to that point, … but at least in the larger areas with food banks with larger capacities, they could manage that,” she said. “Rural areas could be even harder. Seniors, clearly already are one of the most vulnerable populations in terms of food and hunger, and they’re at risk of (exposure).”

Feeding Texas Director of Governmental Affairs Jamie Olson said resources such as Meals on Wheels could help seniors manage, and residents are encouraged to contact their local office.

“Typically Meals on Wheels is set up perfectly for a situation like this,” she said. “One challenge they may face is a shortage of volunteers because people are following advice to not go out and risk spreading (infection).”

Olson said that as of Thursday food banks had not seen a decrease in volunteers, but if they did fundraising would be one option to hire workers to keep supply lines going.

Other ways to help the vulnerable

Olson also warned about the dangers of shoppers panic-buying supplies. With low income people being unable to stock up, empty stores could mean fewer resources when they need them, and become a breeding ground for the spread of the virus.

Hiway 80 Rescue Mission and the Tyler Salvation Army are both adhering to the guidelines provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in response to the coronavirus, while they tend to the most vulnerable populations in Smith County.

Hiway 80 Rescue Mission Managing Executive Director Brian Livingston said the nonprofit is taking precautions, while trying not to overreact or cause hysteria.

“We’re doing everything we can to prevent an infection or spread of infection, but we’re not closing our doors,” he said.

Hiway 80 Rescue Mission helps homeless people in both Tyler and Longview.

The Longview facilities include a homeless shelter for both women and men. Tyler has a day center for the homeless called Gateway to Hope and the Triumph Village New Creations Program to help men dealing with life-controlling issues.

There are soap dispensers in the bathrooms and hand sanitizer stations in the facilities. Staff is also bleaching down everything and being diligent about areas like door knobs and sleeping areas, Livingston said.

“Monitoring is pretty much the only thing we can do,” he said.

There are rooms available for isolation purposes if needed. Volunteers who are feeling unwell have been asked not to come at Hiway 80 facilities, Livingston said.

If someone is exhibiting symptoms of the coronavirus, Livingston said they get them to the hospital as soon as possible. Those coming to Hiway 80 Rescue Mission are being asked about their travel history, he added.

Tyler Salvation Army homeless shelter manager Trevesia Chevis said they continue to disinfect areas. Staff is also making sure everything is clean and wiped down in high traffic areas.

She said the Salvation Army is always trying to make sure the staff and clients are safe.

Chevis said they will call 911 if anyone becomes symptomatic. They also have rooms for isolation if it becomes necessary.

The Salvation Army has a 200 bedroom facility that currently has 137 people inside, Chevis said.

Director of Development Cindy Bell said the Salvation Army has also posted signage to remind people of precautions.

These suggestions include asking people to cover their coughs and sneezes, improve hand hygiene, minimize face contact, clean surfaces and items that have frequent hand contact. People are also encouraged to stay informed as information comes from the CDC and local health authorities.

Local nursing homes also are restricting visitors in an attempt to keep residents safe. Family members should call ahead to ensure their loved ones can receive visitors.

Cory is a multimedia journalist and member of the Education Writers Association, Criminal Justice Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. He has appeared on Crime Watch Daily and Grave Mysteries on Investigation Discovery.

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