Alamo City gains international fame for poverty

We learned recently that SA is getting some international attention. Unfortunately, it’s not the sort that will thrill the tourism crowd over at the Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Texas: A State of Hunger is a TV documentary about hunger, filmed right here in the Alamo City. Jason Edwards, a former graduate student at the University of Wales, made the doc last summer. He chose our town for his study of “food insecurity,” the real fear, and likelihood, that there won’t be enough food to last the month. To a budding journalist in Britain, the dramatic oppositions must have been irresistible. On the one hand, SA is the top tourist destination in Texas, the second wealthiest state in the richest country in the world. On the other, Texas is the second hungriest state, too — over four million Texans live in food poverty. SA is one of the poorest cities in Texas and the nation. According to the San Antonio Food Bank, over 230,000 seek food assistance every year in our city.

Edwards tells the story through a series of interviews with officials of public food assistance agencies — the SA Food Bank, Texas Health and Human Services, and church-based groups like CAM (Christian Assistance Ministries). He also interviews their clients. I’m not sure what the news stylebook in Wales is like, but Edwards steers clear of heart-wrenching scenes of teary-eyed mothers clutching hungry children. But that’s the point. As a public official says in the beginning of the film, “The face of hunger in Texas looks like you and me.”

According to the film (and backed up by the 2010 U.S. Census) one in four children in Texas go to bed hungry each night. Their parents, for the most part, are not homeless — they work. But there just isn’t enough money to pay for rent, gas, and food on a regular basis.

In the film, a CAM official explains that “San Antonio’s poor education system is a major reason so many people seek help. We are a city where many work in the service industry: wait staff, hotel business. Low paying, insecure jobs.” The point is made again — just statistics — by Celia Hagert, senior policy analyst of the Center for Public Policy Studies. “We have had a lot of growth in low-paying jobs, but the growth in earnings the past few decades has been outpaced by the cost of living.”

Tons of stats are delivered: the SA Food Bank provides 265 million pounds of food each year, $60 million worth to a network of 500 nonprofits in a 16-county area, feeding 58,000 weekly. Major food donors: H-E-B, Walmart. Damaged, out of date food. CAM supplies 70 member churches with day-old bread, fruits, and vegetables. Haven for Hope, a huge new multi-function facility, is supported by 150 charities. They provide legal assistance, three meals a day, and housing to the homeless, who they “encourage not to go on welfare.”

Scenes of volunteers sorting donations blur with food aid recipients driving up to donation sites in their cars — I can’t tell who is who. Everyone looks the same. Who are the poor? Maybe everything is OK.

It’s not. Members of various agencies describe the process of sorting donations and dispensing food. A CAM spokesman describes the package of meat, fruit, soup, peanut butter, and the like that is given to families, and casually adds that the recipients are only allowed to accept one donation every three months, “to encourage self-sufficiency.”

That’s a long time to wait when you’re running short every month. But if everyone who needs the help were to get in line, it would be worse. We are told that only “56 or 57 percent” of those eligible for aid accept it. Many people stay away from the food banks out of shame, not realizing that they are entitled to assistance — the working poor have already paid for federally funded aid through their payroll taxes. Not surprisingly, the time of greatest hunger is during the summer, when school lunch programs are inactive. As always, children suffer the worst.

There are glimmers of hope — a new lobby, the Texas Food Policy Roundtable, is attempting to coordinate aid statewide to mend the haphazard way that agencies provide (or don’t provide) services around the state. But they are having difficulty finding legislators interested in their agenda.

By the end of the 24-minute film, when we are told that President Obama has called for an end to childhood hunger by 2015, I am more than ready to hear Texas Food Bank Network director JC Dwyer say, “Hunger is a political issue.”

“We have enough food to feed everyone, but the problem is distribution,” he said.

I don’t believe hunger in America will end in five years. In Texas — with hunger’s severity multiplied by lack of education, adequate wages, and government concern — probably never. •


Texas: A State of Hunger, presented by Jason Edwards, can be viewed online at


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