TU SALUD: Lining up for food in a pandemic


It’s an unusually frigid December morning in South Texas. Many hours before the sun rises, the cars are lined up for at least a mile up and down Southmost Blvd. in Brownsville. The line stretches from International Blvd. all of the way to Beisteiro Middle School, where police and volunteers are beginning to set up cones and prepare for the food distribution. A small crew of students from the UTHealth School of Public Health make their way down the dark line of waiting cars donned in masks and winter coats, holding clipboards. The students respectfully peer into each car to see if the driver is awake, and if a pair of open eyes greet them, they gently knock on the window.

Many of the people waiting in cars have waited all night, some arriving as early as 10:00 pm the night before to assure they are far enough toward the front of the line to get a bag of food before they run out. By 6:00 am some people are asleep under blankets in their cars, and others are wide awake, shivering in unusually cold temperatures that have dropped to the 40s.

I approach the passenger side window of a car where I catch the eyes of an elderly woman who looks terribly cold and uncomfortable, but manages a warm smile for me. She reaches over and struggles to open the passenger side door when I knock, explaining that the window is broken and doesn’t roll down. I tell her it’s okay, that I don’t want to let too much cold in her car when I see how elderly and frail she looks. But she wants to talk and when I explain it is just a survey we are doing she insists on helping out.

At 74, “Lupe” was here because her daughter in law and grandkids needed the food. “My daughter works so hard at night as a caregiver/housekeeper for an elderly couple and this is her first night off in a week. I let her stay asleep with her kids and decided to come myself.”

Lupe (name has been changed for privacy) explained that her 38 year old son had died of Covid-19 back in August, and the meat packing plant where he worked in Bryan, Texas didn’t provide any compensation for the family. “He was a line leader and was worried about the Coronavirus because a lot of people were getting sick at work. But they said if he didn’t come to work he would lose his job so he kept going in. Now he’s lost his life, and his family has lost their father and husband. My poor daughter in law had nowhere to go and no income so she came back to Brownsville and moved in with me. I’m on a fixed income here myself, with only my social security check. Thank God I own my own little house. I just has two bedrooms, but at least it’s a roof over their heads. But the food always runs out before the end of the month. My grandkids are growing boys. I cry every time I look at them thinking they don’t have a father anymore to guide them or to support them. I’ve lost a piece of me two, my only son!”

Lupe isn’t the only elderly person sleeping in a freezing car. In fact most of the people I met as I walked down the line and surveyed folks about their current financial and food security situation were elderly. I did, however, meet “Jose” (name changed to protect privacy), who was driving a pretty nice truck and looked to be in his late 30’s.

At first he was hesitant to talk, but eventually opened up.

“I never in my life thought I’d be asking for handouts, or not have enough food for my kids. I had a good job, and never took any government help, never even thought about taking food stamps. We were saving to buy our first house, and I had just paid off this truck. Then this pandemic hit and my whole world came crashing down. Both my wife and I are out of work and we had to move back in with her parents. I come and wait here in line so I can at least contribute something to the household, even if just a bag of food. I’ve always worked and now I just can’t find any work! I just don’t know how I’m going to make ends meet. From one day to the next I became one of those people I never thought I would be. But I have to make sure my kids have enough to eat!”

As I’m talking with Jose, a semi-truck with “Food Bank of the RGV” painted on the side, drives by the line of cars and pulls into the school parking lot. Volunteers start unloading bags of food and car engines start as cars anticipate moving forward after a long, cold night waiting in line.

“I can’t turn my engine on until I know the line is moving, since I barely have enough gas to get back to my in-laws house,” Jose comments.

Lupe and Jose both expressed gratitude for the food bags they would receive. Many of the drivers I spoke with relied on these food distributions and other neighborhood pantries, to ensure their families had enough to eat each month. Every single person I spoke with had known someone effected by the pandemic.

“I’m grateful, but also feeling ashamed somehow, although I know I didn’t do anything wrong. You really shouldn’t judge people, because nobody wants to be out here, sleeping in their cars in the cold all night for a bag of food. You never know when it could be you. We are here because we need it.”

Lupe continues, “We were poor to begin with, so you add this and we are drowning”. We were poor before but at least my son was alive! I wish he didn’t have to choose between working and living!” because Tu Salud ¡Si Cuenta! (Your Health Matters!) The weekly food distributions in Brownsville are serving over 1,000 families every week. A unique collaboration between United Way of Southern Cameron County, the City of Brownsville, Brownsville Wellness Coalition, Foodbank of the RGV, Valley Baptist Legacy Coalition and the UTHealth School of Public Health includes many volunteers. The coalition United Against Hunger, led by United Way of Southern Cameron County, has served thousands of families and employed dozens of furloughed workers to help with the distribution over the last nine months. For more information go to the United Against Hunger Facebook page.