As pandemic continues, Tulsans who never needed a charity’s help before need it now

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     Tulsa World ( Tulsa World) — Cars began lining up just after sunrise on a damp January morning. Some turned off their engines to save gas and people huddled under blankets to stay warm, waiting nearly three hours before the line even started to move.

All this, to get food.

A year ago, before COVID-19 ripped through the local economy, the grocery giveaway at Iglesia Hispana Victory church served about 600 families a week. Now, as many as 2,000 families show up every Thursday morning to get a trunk full of produce, dairy and canned goods.

The line this Thursday stretched out of the parking lot and east down 41st Street to Garnett Road, where it turned north and ended more than a mile from the church. And most of the cars appeared to be relatively new Subarus, Acuras, GMC trucks and other middle-class models.

Families who never needed help before, who never imagined they would need help, are now struggling to meet the most basic of needs, said Rita Gallardo, who runs the La Cosecha food program at the church.

“Some people have no idea what’s going on and how much need there is,” Gallardo said. “We’re tying to meet the needs of the people, but it’s difficult. There’s so much need. The cars keep coming and keep coming. They don’t stop.”

Statewide, before the pandemic, about 15% of residents couldn’t always afford an adequate amount of groceries, according to the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma. Now the number is close to 19%, or 1 out of 5. In Tulsa County alone, nearly 90,000 people — including more than 32,000 children — need help to get enough to eat, according to the Food Bank.

The sheer demand has left food charities struggling to keep up. The Dream Center in north Tulsa, for example, has provided 13.7 million meals in just the last 37 weeks, officials said.

Before the pandemic, the center provided groceries to about 200 families a week. Now, it helps more than 2,000 families every Saturday morning, officials said.

“This pandemic has no prejudice,” said Tim Newton, the director of programs at the Dream Center. “It doesn’t matter what color or creed or economic class you come from. Every week, I talk to people who never needed help before. And now they can’t afford groceries.”

In one case, a man who did not want to be identified, described saving six month’s worth of income in case he ever lost his job, a precaution that a lot of financial advisers recommend.

He was furloughed seven months ago, then laid off without ever collecting another paycheck. And now his savings have run out, leaving him in line for several hours to collect food from a charity.

“I did everything I was supposed to do,” he said. “And now I have nothing.”

Like other programs of its kind, Food on the Move has adopted a drive-through distribution system, with volunteers wearing masks and loading food directly into car trunks while the recipients never come into direct contact with anyone.

It assures social distancing, but it also disrupts the festival-like atmosphere Food on the Move events had before the pandemic. They still have a music DJ, but no more food trucks, health check-ups or cooking demonstrations.

“We’ve had to adapt like everyone else,” said Kevin Harper, Food on the Move’s executive director. “But the need has increased exponentially.”

The group provided food for more than 136,000 families last year, he said.

“We serve a community where a lot of people were already living on the margins,” Harper said. “Then they get furloughed or their hours get cut and now they have to decide ‘Do I pay rent or do I put gas in the car or do I buy groceries?’

“That’s the kind of choice a lot of Tulsans are facing everyday now.”

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