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Learning that the county has been paying a higher amount than its neighbors to the San Antonio Food Bank for charitable supplements for local households, La Salle commissioners have put on hold a decision on continuing the arrangement without substantive changes.
Annual contributions by La Salle County to the food distribution organization have totaled $60,000, while other counties in the service area who have identical agreements with the San Antonio Food Bank have made smaller donations, regardless of their population or their percentage of needy residents. La Salle County is listed as having a population of 7,514.
Records provided by the food distribution organization show that Frio County contributes $15,000 per year with a population of 20,496, Medina County $12,000 with a population of 46,411, and Zavala County $25,000 with a population of 11,823.
Other counties in the San Antonio Food Bank’s distribution area likewise contracting for provisions include Bandera, population 23,752, donating $13,000; Karnes, population 15,483, donating $36,000; and Guadalupe, population 131,533, donating just $5,000.
La Salle, Frio and Zavala counties are listed as having similar poverty rates, between 26 and 29 percent. Medina County is listed as having a poverty rate of 12.2 percent, similar to that of Bandera County.
In a brief presentation to La Salle County commissioners Monday, June 14, San Antonio Food Bank chief of government and public affairs Mario Obledo said his organization strives to deliver the same amount of food to every recipient in the coverage area, regardless of the county’s poverty rate and the size of the county’s annual contribution.
The data indicates there are over 1,950 people in immediate need of provisions from the SA Food Bank in La Salle County and over 5,670 in Frio County. Data for neighboring counties indicates over 5,660 people in Medina and over 3,420 in Zavala County depend in large part on supplies of fresh foods, meats, canned goods, bread and dairy goods distributed free of charge by the food bank.
At the height of the virus pandemic, according to Obledo, the food bank supplied essentials to more than 120,000 people in its coverage area.
Obledo also said the food bank will extend its coverage by a further 13 counties when it absorbs the San Angelo-based Concho Valley distribution network.
“We want to thank the county for its support in helping us provide nutrition to the people of La Salle County,” Obledo said on Monday. “The pandemic is easing, but we are still trying to fight hunger.
“Our country’s safety net has been stretched thin,” the organization spokesman said of charity work nationwide. “Millions are needing help.”
Further expansion by the San Antonio Food Bank includes construction of a two-story 60,000-square-foot kitchen for preparing meals to deliver to the needy, and a Hunters for the Hungry venison processing facility. Obledo invited La Salle County elected officials to visit the organization’s regional headquarters and examine the modern amenities.
The San Antonio Food Bank does not dictate to its member counties how much they should contribute to the organization for its provisions. Both Obledo and County Judge Joel Rodriguez acknowledged Monday that each county’s financial position is different and that the amount contributed is dependent on a vote by county commissioners.
Judge Rodriguez said he believes La Salle County’s contribution to the food bank is disproportionately high, since every recipient across the region receives the same amount of food.
“I know the nutritional services you provide are very helpful,” the judge told Obledo at Monday’s meeting. “You try to be proportional between your counties.”
Judge Rodriguez stopped short of suggesting at Monday’s meeting that La Salle reduce the amount it contributes to the San Antonio Food Bank but noted that the county’s payment is bolstered in large part by private contributions.
Those contributions, he said, may henceforth be diverted to local food pantries, church-based charities and community organizations working to help feed the most needy residents of the county. Rodriguez said he believes private donors are frustrated that their gifts have been absorbed by the San Antonio Food Bank into funding that is distributed across several counties.
“We have to answer to our constituents, why we are paying so much and others aren’t,” the county judge said. “There has to be more engagement with local government. The people have to get something back.
“The sole purpose of increasing our contribution a few years back was to get more food, which we did not see,” the judge said.
Judge Rodriguez and commissioners also indicated some recipients of the charitable supplies have had complaints about food quality, spoiled food, and problems with bags that may include some damaged or inedible vegetables.
The judge said he understands the difficulties of ensuring that all donated foods are fresh, adding that he has often found mold on bread sold in local grocery stores.
“I went to a food distribution event, and the bread was all squished,” Comm. Jack Alba said. “It was kinda embarrassing.”
Obledo and his staff told commissioners that while every effort is made to ensure foods are fresh, undamaged and have a minimum of spoilage, the warehousing, handling, transport and delivery may result in some damage. Foods such as potatoes and onions, they said, may likewise include some spoiled examples.
Obledo also said he is working with his staff to ensure that food deliveries are made to needy households in outlying communities where some eligible families have often missed out on provisions.
“Our team is having internal communications [regarding] servicing Gardendale and Fowlerton by getting them on a route that makes sense,” Obledo said Monday, repeating what he had written in an email to the county judge on Wednesday, June 9.
“This isn’t going to be the last pandemic or disaster or tragic event,” Obledo told commissioners, referring to the challenges his organization faced in dealing with increased demands for essential provisions during the past year. “We are positioning ourselves to be prepared.”
Judge Rodriguez said in an interview after Monday’s meeting that he believes commissioners will consider the amount of private donations that are made in La Salle County each year when they cast a vote on how much the county will contribute to the food bank, adding that he believes many of the local donors made their contributions because they believed it would provide direct assistance to needy families in La Salle County.
“There are several pantries that work hard, right here, to keep families fed in our own neighborhoods,” Rodriguez said. “The Methodist church is one example. Locally, we know who needs help and who needs it right now. This is where local food pantries are most valuable. We have to consider them when we divide up the funds that we have available.”
Commissioners are expecting to return to the issue at an upcoming meeting.