On a recent Friday, Susan Goodell looked at the long line of people at the El Pasoans Fighting Hunger Food Bank in the Lower Valley. In front of the facility, an even longer line of cars had formed down Pan American Drive
Goodell pinpointed the children.
“One in three kids in this community live in poverty, and they need to have adequate nutrition to grow their bodies and develop their minds,” she said. “We see it in our kids’ lack of educational attainment because it’s hard to focus when you’re hungry. Ultimately, we’ve got to look at it beyond a humanitarian perspective and think about how much damage this does to our community.”
As chief executive, Goodell oversees the sixth-largest food bank in the United States. It was recently ranked nationally by Forbes as the 73rd-largest charity.
El Pasoans Fighting Hunger is the distribution center for more than 132 pantries across the El Paso region and provided about 100 million pounds of food this year. At the site at 9541 Plaza, the nonprofit served about 150,000 people in 2022.
Since taking the position in January 2018, Goodell has expanded the use of their nearly 177,000-square-foot food bank for freezers and food preparation rooms.
Before moving to El Paso, Goodell was previously CEO of the Global Fund for Children for more than three years. For 13 years, she was the president and chief executive of the Forgotten Harvest food bank in Oak Park, Michigan, and grew its annual budget from $300,000 to $86 million.
El Paso Inc. spoke with Goodell at the food bank on Plaza Circle, where she discussed how they managed during and after the pandemic, why there is so much need for food in the region and plans for 2023.
Q: How is El Pasoans Fighting Hunger doing?
The food bank has had a tough year during the middle of a global food shortage. It’s tough to feed this many people who come to our door each day, but we’re doing a lot of good work.
Q: How does the need for food now compare to during the pandemic?
It is down slightly, but very slightly. The line here of cars right now is probably around the corner and maybe up to the stop sign, about a mile. During the worst of the pandemic, in 2020, the line was regularly around that corner, onto the access road and sometimes even blocked three exits off from Texas Loop 375.
Q: What was it like trying to provide food to people in that line?
We are much more effective now in getting people food very quickly. Before, we had never done food distributions at the site before. What happened in 2020 was that every individual that came here had to fill out a piece of federal paper to get access to the food.
The switch to electronic applications took us about nine months to get federal approval. As of the end of November 2020, we then had permission to change all of that to digital. That means when a client comes here today, instead of filling out a form, they now answer the 13 questions that are required by the government, and they will get a little card with a barcode on the back. Now every time they come back, which can be as often as once a week, they’ll just scan the barcode and go. It’s a whole lot faster than having to fill out a page every single time.
Q: Why has the need for food persisted for so long?
It’s a resource issue. During the pandemic, about 24% of our population lived in poverty. Some people don’t have sufficient money to pay for basic human needs like going to buy food at the grocery store. They barely have enough to pay for rent, medicine, utilities and gas to go to work. They just don’t have enough income, so they come to the food bank to stretch what little income they have to be able to make their rent payment and put food on the table. That’s what drives hunger in America.
If you think about people in this community, some have worked their whole lives doing domestic help in someone’s home like maybe cleaning, yard work or working in a hotel or public service kind of job. They are not earning enough to have much for retirement. Our seniors, for example, many have worked their whole lives, but they don’t have enough Social Security to survive.
Q: What can El Pasoans Fighting Hunger do for seniors in the community?
Our Senior Box program is another one of our government funded programs. Our seniors who go into that program are living on $400 to $600 a month, clearly not enough money. There are other programs for children who have been born into poverty and people with disabilities.
Q: How hard is it to source food outside of El Paso today compared to last year?
It’s been difficult this year. At the end of 2021, the federal government reduced food supplies by about 60%. We have had to make up as much of that difference as we can by finding food source supplies elsewhere in the country that are donated and bringing them into El Paso.
That meant more tractor-trailers and higher costs. Pre-2022, we would have traveled as far west to Los Angeles, as far north as Las Vegas or as far east as Western Louisiana to pick up food. We would have been a very regional operation, and that would have brought in sufficient food for this community.
But because of the global food shortage that we’ve been experiencing, our trucks are having to go to all 48 states in the continental United States, with the exception of Alaska and Hawaii. Only 5% of our food comes from El Paso. The other 95% has to come in on the back of a tractor-trailer.
Q: Have you thought of any solutions to the cost of traveling?
When the distances are so great and we don’t have the trucking capacity or enough trucks to go and get it, we do hire commercial carriers from trucking companies to bring us that food. But that’s pretty expensive also. It’s our preference to send our own fleet whenever possible because it’s the least expensive option.
Despite having to cover greater distances to get food, we are still incredibly lean and efficient. For every dollar that we bring into this organization, that quickly is converted into several meals for someone in need.
Q: Can you describe the passion it takes to do this job?
This is a team that has really produced miracles for this community. This is a team that just rises to the challenge. Most recently, that has included supplying food for migrants. We’ve been making the sandwiches for the migrants. We’ll do sack lunches or breakfasts and are averaging about 1,000 a day right now. This is something that we had never done before until 2022.
The work our team did was most illustrated during the pandemic, starting in 2020. It was during a time when no one knew how deadly the virus was. We’re a very small team of about 73 people at the moment, including the driving teams. A food bank this size normally would have a staff of about 380.
Q: Were there volunteers during the pandemic?
During most of 2020, 2021 and even part of 2022, businesses actively prohibited their people from volunteering because of fear of the virus. Schools certainly were not volunteering. Many of our volunteers are seniors because they’re retired and have more time, and the virus disproportionately targeted our senior population. Volunteerism fell way off, and that was experienced at every organization in the country.
Q: What was it like for the employees to work without those volunteers?
They were terrified. I didn’t know if this food bank was going to get through the pandemic. I am really proud to say that our team showed up every single day no matter how scared they were and made sure the community was fed.
Q: Are there any solutions? Are you looking to hire more people?
That’s a revenue issue. If we can afford more people, we would certainly bring them on, but it’s challenging in El Paso to find enough resources to maintain this level of work. We need to fundraise at a much higher level to be able to afford things like more staff resources to go pick up more food.
Q: What does El Pasoans Fighting Hunger do to get volunteers on board?
We are very active on social media and in reaching out directly to different entities to volunteer, whether their businesses or faith-based organizations. We’re also attracting quite a lot of media attention, and we’re able to get the message out that way. Volunteerism really dried up during the worst of the pandemic, but it’s just beginning to pick up again.
Q: What is El Pasoans Fighting Hunger going to do in 2023?
In 2023, we will be opening our Food FARMacy. We’re entering a partnership with Texas Tech physicians and the medical school where we will help people with health conditions like diabetes and heart disease with food. Physicians will refer them to the Food FARMacy and they will come work with our dietician to learn about what their doctor’s prescribed diet means, how to read labels and how to ensure that they are getting the items that will help them maintain their health.
For example, when we think about someone who has diabetes, they go to their doctor and get a prescription for insulin, but they’ll also get a diet. What happens for people with a low income is that they will go to the grocery store and very quickly realize that they cannot afford a healthy diet. If they can’t afford those foods, they will never control their diabetes.
Q: How can the Food FARMacy work for someone who can’t afford a doctor?
We have been working on that as there is such an apparent correlation between food and health. With this state in particular, access to Medicaid for low-income people is extremely constrained. When Obamacare began several years ago, many states were able to expand Medicaid to a wider number of people who could not afford health care. Unfortunately, in Texas, that was not the case. It makes the job incredibly hard.
I think we’re going to have our hands full with the number of patients referred to us by Texas Tech, but Medicaid reform is a huge issue in our state. If people had access to that, a lot of our health care challenges would, if not go away, certainly be greatly diminished. We would not be seeing the chronic conditions that we see today where people wait until they are so sick they have no other alternative but to show up in the emergency room.
Q: Are you planning to open more locations?
Right now, this will be the first location. If resources allow, we would love to open more Food FARMacies but that will mean finding property and outfitting it as a facility on that property. We have hopes in the future to have additional Food FARMacies, but we need to find funders that would be willing to support that work.