Compassion Through Food

The San Antonio Food Bank's Approach to Helping Asylum Seekers Feel at Home [PM Magazine, January 2020]

Jan 1, 2020 | ARTICLE
BY JESSICA DOVALINA AND ERIC COOPER

In the November 2019 issue of PM Magazine, we introduced this article series about the city of San Antonio’s response to an influx of asylum seekers with the article, “Bienvenido. Bienvenue. Bem-Vindo. Akeyi. No Matter How You Say It, the City of San Antonio Welcomes Asylum Seekers with Dedicated Coalition (Part 1 of 3).” Despite being located more than 150 miles from the border, San Antonio became the unlikely first step on the asylum seeking journey for more than 30,000 children, women, and men representing more than six 
Central American and African countries.

The story gathered local and national media interest from newspaper, digital, and television news affiliates across the ideological spectrum. These stories worked to capture not just the services being provided by the city of San Antonio and our community partners, but the journeys, hopes, and futures of the asylum seekers served. Invariably many of these stories lauded the work of the city of San Antonio and highlighted the welcome reception that asylum seekers received.

For the city of San Antonio and the Human Services Department, meeting a new and unexpected need, while challenging, was nothing new. We applied a tried and true formula that we have successfully used to meet many community challenges. Nothing we do as a department or as a city we do alone. For over 40 years, San Antonio, primarily through the Human Services Department, has invested in supporting a strong local base of community nonprofit organizations to help us to address a variety of community challenges. Through this collaborative work, the city has successfully established early childhood coalitions, implemented strategies to promote grade-level reading, and effectively reduced homelessness. The strength of this community of providers, who range from very small local agencies to local affiliates of larger nonprofit organizations, is in their common commitment to the idea that even the most vulnerable members our community—even having just arrived—deserve an opportunity to thrive.

Meeting a Collective Mission

San Antonio first became involved in a coordinated effort to assist asylum seekers traveling through our city on March 28, 2019, in response to a local news affiliate report from the downtown Greyhound station. The reporters appeared live on camera with migrant families that had been dropped off at the station by private shuttle vans from Eagle Pass, Texas, hungry, without resources, and with no place to stay.

For the next two days, local government, residents, nonprofit partners, and community stakeholders responded to ensure that children and their families had the resources they needed while in San Antonio, as well as assistance to make the final leg of their journey to their host city destinations. In the meantime, we made a very big ask of some of our strongest local nonprofit and faith-based organizations who had the capacity to provide needed services to the asylum seekers arriving downtown. We reached out to Travis Park Church, Catholic Charities of San Antonio, and San Antonio Food Bank to discuss how to continue to both meet the emergency needs of these families, as well as improve on the delivery of services should the influx of asylum seekers continue into the foreseeable future.

With few identified local resources and no promise of reimbursement, the initial call to action focused on how we could leverage existing resources to meet this new and unexpected need. Our mission was simple: provide a compassionate layover for families while connecting asylum seekers to resources and family and health services. From the initial discussion, we focused on meeting three basic needs that neither the city nor our partners could manage alone: overnight shelter (Travis Park Church), meals (San Antonio Food Bank), and travel assistance (Catholic Charities).

Adapting Partner Roles to Meet Community Needs

The number of asylum seekers grew from 100–200 daily in the spring to 100–500 daily in late summer. Beginning in June, the composition of migrants also diversified. Adding to what initially had been primarily a population of Central Americans from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, June brought large numbers of African asylum seekers from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola, as well as Haitians. As the numbers and countries of origin changed, the role of each partner evolved to meet new challenges.

Our nearly a dozen faith-based and community partners really leaned into their roles with the common goal of ensuring that we collectively shouldered the increased demand for resources in a way that supported the collaborative effort and ensured children and families continued to receive a compassionate stay in San Antonio. Perhaps more meaningfully, nonprofit partners and city leadership and their families worked side by side with the 1,192 city employees (from 35 departments), representing 13 percent of the civilian workforce and 578 community volunteers day after day, night after night.

The San Antonio Food Bank: A primary Partner in the Migrant Resource Center Response

The community’s local food bank, a member of the Feeding America network, has long served as the community’s go-to agency for disaster and emergency support when it comes to meals, groceries, water, and much more. The work done by the food bank has extended beyond our city limits to “fight hunger and feed hope” across a 16-county region of southwest Texas for nearly 40 years. The San Antonio Food Bank has grown to be one of the largest regional food banks in the country, as well as a recognized innovation leader in the areas of service delivery, logistics, and organizational efficiencies, having been recognized by Charity Navigator among the top two percent of all high-performing nonprofits in the United States.

The food bank had flexed its emergency response muscles over the last two years, responding to hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria; and in support of furloughed federal employees in January 2019. It has also built a unique relationship with the volunteer community in the region. Week in and week out, the organization convenes over 1,000 volunteers a week, more than any organization in the community.

The San Antonio Food Bank leaned in and embraced the opportunity to help the city of San Antonio. On the busiest days, their chief operating officer, Erika Borrego; chief of government and operations, Mario Obledo Jr.; and their president and chief executive officer, Eric Cooper, could be found hard at work at the center, alongside food bank staff, community volunteers, and city staff. Their commitment to serving migrant children and families evolved from providing three hot meals a day to providing snacks and supplies for the longer journey families would take across the United States, assisting with volunteer recruitment to staff shelter operations, coordination of clothing and donations, and sorting supplies onsite.

When the city opened a second shelter in early June due to an influx of new arrivals from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola, the San Antonio Food Bank helped to fill the void by adding the city’s volunteer needs to their volunteer recruitment/scheduling website and successfully recruited volunteers to help support the operation of the second overflow shelter.

The city of San Antonio currently funds the San Antonio Food Bank to provide food programming for children, homeless, and seniors in the community. Through the city and other funding resources, the food bank maintains three unique kitchens in the region that focus on a unique programmatic role, along with providing an education for individuals needing skills or retraining. One kitchen focuses on meals for the homeless, another on meals for kids, and a third dedicates its work to meals for seniors.

Through this partnership of the three kitchens, the food bank was able to leverage students, volunteers, and culinary staff to provide meals from the Haven for Hope Kitchen (housed at the Haven for Hope Homeless Campus) for the Migrant Resource Center. This leveraging effect had an immediate positive impact by decreasing the amount of time needed to begin operations, reducing the amount needed for meal transports, and reducing the overall cost for the local government to provide meal services to asylum seekers. It also provided a space and opportunity for community volunteers to make difference for the migrant families transiting our city. Making meals not only nourishes our guests, but also deeply nourishes the heart of our community.

Cultural Sensitivity

One of the challenges the food bank kitchen faced was preparing culturally sensitive meals. Making meals for temporary guests from Latin America was not a stretch—the ingredients and recipes desired by these guests were similar to the ones the chefs used on a daily basis. A few modifications were needed, based on dietary preferences, to include more fresh fruits as a staple of every meal. Preparing meals for guests from the Democratic Republic of Congo or Angola was an entirely different matter. Food bank team members have deep relationships in the culinary community. They knew a small group of chefs and families with Congolese roots and quickly connected with them, and in no time, they were preparing a special meal with Congolese taste and flair. To say it was just a meal would be to grossly understate the importance of that meal and what it represented to our guests. To them, it was a taste of home provided by a team of volunteers and staff that strived to make their transition to life in the United States a little easier. This one meal brought warmth, happiness, and cheer.

Most-Wanted Items

A final, but no less important role the San Antonio Food Bank played in this response has been material donation management. The organization is known locally for efficiencies in donation management and they were easily able to handle the unique needs of our temporary guests. They quickly updated their website to carry a list of our guests’ “most-wanted” items: hygiene products, clothing, and snack foods. They also adapted their volunteer process to sort through, pack, and prepare for daily delivery thousands of donated items. The organization lent professional drivers, forklift workers, as well as inventory professionals to ensure that all donated items were accounted for and managed with an eye toward safety.

Resiliency and Hope—Universal Languages

After the initial rush and chaos of our first weeks of services, we began to really hear the stories of asylum seekers. These weren’t stories that they were sharing with immigration officials, court officers, or the media. They were stories that they were sharing with someone who had shown them a small measure of kindness and compassion by providing simple things that are often taken for granted—food and shelter.

The stories asylum seekers shared were almost beyond our comprehension—stories ranging from gang violence and lack of economic opportunity in their home countries to tales of perilous and harrowing journeys through Central America and Mexico to the border. These stories remained with us long after asylum seekers have departed. Individuals like Julie from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Carlos from Honduras and their families have left a lasting and indelible impression on us. [Julie, an asylum seeker from the Democratic Republic of Congo, made her way to San Antonio along with her 10-year-old and 14-year-old daughters after a four-month journey from Angola, Ecuador, Central America, and Mexico to the United States Border. She left her home country due to severe economic inequality with the hopes of starting a new life in New York.] [Carlos, along with his son and daughter, fled Honduras due to violence and lack of economic opportunity worries for his wife and other family members that remain in Honduras.]

More compelling is the message of resiliency and hope universally expressed by the asylum seekers. Regardless of their situation, uncertainty of the future they faced, or what language they spoke—Lingala, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese—they displayed an unmatched resilience, a shared a message of hope for a better life for their families, and a true appreciation for the welcome they received.

JESSICA DAVOLINA is assistant director of the Department of Human Services, San Antonio, Texas (jessica.dovalina@sanantonio.gov).

 

ERIC COOPER is president and chief executive officer of the San Antonio Food Bank, San Antonio, Texas (ecooper@safoodbank.org).

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