The Eating Apart Together (EAT) Initiative distributes thousands of meals a week to people experiencing homelessness through the COVID-19 response.
From April 9 to June 5, the Eating Apart Together (EAT) Initiative has distributed more than 100,000 meals to people experiencing homelessness. This includes both shelf-stable bags of food delivered to encampments and prepared meals served through soup kitchens and community outreach. Last week the Austin City Council approved funding to continue the program through July 2020.
“COVID-19 has impacted us all, but for people experiencing homelessness the effects have quickly and severely cut off access to food, water, and hygiene resources,” City Manager Spencer Cronk said. “The EAT Initiative gets critical food into the community using the existing assets and relationships of every organization involved. Our city is healthier and safer because of the groups who have answered the call to do more in this time of need; none of us could do it alone.”
Partner organizations have taken on distributing the food across the city by adding meal delivery to existing services. Through partnerships, coordination, and cooperation, meals are meeting people where they are, usually in combination with other services like using showers, bathrooms, and distributing mail.
The Austin Convention Center Team
Each Thursday a team of 10 Event Operations staff receive, sort, and bag the shelf-stable food shipments in the make-shift distribution center managed at the Convention Center. In total 45 team members from the Palmer Events Center, the Austin Convention Center, and Maintenance divisions have participated in the effort.
“From the very beginning of this project, our staff has been eager to assist,“ Taje Allen, Interim Facility Manager, Austin Convention Center Department said. “They understood the magnitude of preparing meals for those in need. Many staff asked if they could participate before we reached out to them. Our staff felt a sense of real purpose as they packaged the meals.”
Sunrise Homeless Navigation Center
Meal service starts at 9am at Sunrise Homeless Navigation Center. Shaded by oak trees on a corner lot in South Austin, clients wait six feet apart on the yellow lines to receive water, coffee, and foods ranging from a loaf of bread to Italian pasta with a chunk of burrata. Sunrise has provided services for about five years, offering food, hygiene supplies, clothing, WiFi, and mail access in addition to case management.
The EAT Initiative prepackaged meals delivered by Revolution Foods have been well received, the 300 meals comprises 60% of the food served each day. On Tuesdays and Thursdays CommUnity Care‘s mobile clinic provides healthcare (including COVID-19 testing) in a small exterior building on the property, which otherwise hosts youth programs for the church. Other days clients can access telehealth services outside the mail building. Since the pandemic hit, Sunrise has seen their numbers climb by about 20 people each week.
“The food keeps people going in this time of hardship and uncertainty,” Sarah Combs, Volunteer Coordinator at Sunrise Homeless Navigation Center said. “The comfort and calories provided by these meals means clients can engage in the work needed to navigate their way out of homelessness. None of this is easy, but receiving food from the City helps us stretch our volunteer hours and donated supplies further in service of our mission.”
Javier Mondragon, a member of Sunrise Church experiencing homelessness, has been sober for six years. He relies on the Homeless Navigation Center for food, access to services like food stamps and health care, and community.
“When I first learned about COVID I was worried the church would shut down. This church is home; a lot of people feel that,” Mondragon said. “(Pastor) Mark’s team moved fast to find help and did whatever it took to provide a meal. I have seen the line of people multiply by 100 percent and wondered ‘how are we going to do this?’ Food is an essential and they can only get it here at Sunrise.”
Located in the small Austin Baptist Chapel building catty-corner to Terrazas Library on East Cesar Chavez, Angel House has adapted their operations to safely serve breakfast and lunch to hundreds of guests each day. The line moves quickly, each guest receiving a squirt of hand-sanitizer, a fresh serving of hot food, and a bag that includes something sweet, something salty, and the prepared meals from Revolution Foods. As volunteers and staff distribute the food, more volunteers prep for the next day, when they will again combine the food donations they receive with the EAT Initiative meals to get as much nutrition as they can to those in need.
Angel House is one of the few meal providers operating seven days a week, and the EAT meals have helped them keep up with demand as their volunteer base has decreased.
“There is so much need; we want to do everything we can to help our guests,” Cindy Smith, Director of Angel House Soup Kitchen said. “We are thankful to be able to hand out healthy bags of food to our guests. Receiving food from the City has made it possible to purchase and provide other important items like Vitamin C packs, bandanas, socks, extra bottled waters, etc.”
“If COVID doesn’t get me, hunger will,” Sergio Salvaje said as he grabbed a brown bag of food under I-35. He has lived nearby for two years. “Unless Corona feels like starvation, I am okay.”
The Other Ones Foundation (TOOF) was quick to pivot services as COVID-19 hit. When safety protocols interrupted the cleaning contracts they held with the Austin Parks and Recreation Department, capacity shifted to supplying food and hygiene supplies to people experiencing homelessness. TOOF advocated for creating the EAT Initiative, pushing for more shelf-stable food distributed directly under the bridges and into the encampments where people stay.
Staffed by people who are or have experienced homelessness, the organization distributed several hundred bags of food into the community a week, many in combination with their mobile hygiene program Box of Rain.
LINC Austin’s primary mission is outreach and navigation with a focus on relationships. As member of the Continuum of Care, team members spend most of their time in the field in North Austin building relationships, providing case management, and navigating clients into housing. Leaders saw that COVID-19 changed not only the availability of food, but of human connections.
“We believe that food is every person’s basic right and need,” LINC Austin Executive Director Haleh Kersten said. “We provide hygiene, clothing, food, and COVID-19 health screenings to locate and refer high risk and symptomatic individuals to ECHO and the EMS team. Equally important, we provide care and hope to remind those we serve they are cared for and not alone.”
LINC Austin’s outreach team delivers 350 bags of shelf-stable food each week, a scale of service they wouldn’t be able to reach without EAT resources. They have also seen that food is a new entry point for connecting and building brides with those experiencing homelessness who might not otherwise accept help.
Travis County Precinct Three/Integral Care
Every weekday Drew McAngus, Senior Deputy Constable for Precinct Three of Travis County, and Danilo Stanley of Integral Care’s Programs for Assistance in the Transition from Homelessness (PATH), load up Stanley’s van with EAT bags to distribute at encampments across South Austin. The two had partnered on outreach prior to COVID-19 but have also seen the weekly food delivery as an entry point for building trust.
“When we go out, we are doing it away from downtown and into the outer edges, right on the city or county line,” McAngus said. “Now folks are looking forward to it. Once we build a relationship and trust, then we could start talking about services. Sometimes it doesn’t happen the first visit, and it may take several years before we see progress, but we don’t give up. When they realize we really do care and that we keep coming back, they feel needed and wanted, and it makes a difference.”
Deputy McAngus noted that the food was critical for people experiencing homelessness to shelter in place and limit exposure to the virus.
The City of Austin sources food from the Central Texas Food Bank and Revolution Foods. Additional distribution partners include: Mobile Loaves and Fishes, Caritas, Micah 6 Food Pantry, Central Presbyterian Church, Community Health Paramedics, and Mosaic Church and Bethel Austin. City staff are combining data about EAT meal deliveries with other food distribution organizations to create a clear picture of how and where food reaches people experiencing homelessness, identifying overlaps and gaps. Those interested to connect with the EAT Initiative can learn more at www.austintexas.gov/eat.