Sister Sheila Zolman (left), a missionary with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Marble Falls Ward, and Glen Hancock, Austin-area communications director, tour The Helping Center of Marble Falls with the pantry’s executive director, Sam Pearce. In July, the church donated both money and food to the center. Staff photo by Brigid Cooley
Visitors at The Helping Center of Marble Falls peruse grocery aisles stocked with nonperishable foods, organic produce, and high-quality meats, picking what they need to feed their families for the week. Unlike most shopping experiences, they don’t have to go through a checkout line and pay.
“Food should not be an issue in people’s lives,” said Helping Center Executive Director Sam Pearce. “There is no excuse for anyone to be hungry in Burnet County. Period.”
September is National Hunger Awareness Month, meaning campaigns and fundraisers to end hunger will pop up as communities and organizations work to raise awareness of the issue. For some Highland Lakes residents, addressing hunger and food insecurity in the area is a year-round endeavor.
Burnet County is home to about 48,000 people, according to U.S. Census statistics from 2019. Findings in a 2019 study by Feeding America, a nonprofit organization dedicated to fighting hunger across the country, show that food insecurity and hunger affect 6,430 people in Burnet County, roughly 14 percent.
“A lot of the needs in this area are more so toward children, and I think a lot of people don’t realize that,” said Jaelyn Nelson, an AmeriCorps VISTA member working with the Burnet County Hunger Alliance. “Then, there’s a big older population, too. Not all of them are mobile and not all of them drive.”
Food insecurity refers to people experiencing a “lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life,” according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In many cases, the term is interchangeable with hunger, Nelson explained. Unemployment and financial stress are the two main contributors to the issue.
“There’s a few pockets in Granite Shoals, Kingsland, Hoover Valley, and Burnet that are very low-income to no-income areas, and it’s prevalent there,” Nelson said.
The Burnet County Hunger Alliance works to streamline communication and create a united front among the area food banks, pantries, and relevant organizations.
As a member of the alliance, The Helping Center has provided food and even some financial aid to residents since 1987. After opening its new location at 1016 Broadway, the organization has become a supply hub for Highland Lakes food pantries as well as those in surrounding counties, including Llano and Blanco. A spacious storage area and high-tech equipment such as industry-grade walk-in coolers and freezers have made the transition possible.
The center serves over 600 clients each week through curbside grocery pickup services and in-center shopping, during which visitors can pick out their own groceries for free once a week.
“God said to feed the hungry, and so that’s what we do.” Pearce explained. “We’re called The Helping Center, and that means if anyone comes to me for help, no matter what it is, I’m going to try to find something for them.”
An official partner agency of the Central Texas Food Bank, the center would not be able to reach such a large group of people without the help of community partners such as H-E-B and local churches, including the Marble Falls Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which donated 12 pallets of nonperishable food in July.
The center also relies on monetary and food donations from individuals. As winter inches closer, donations of comfort foods like canned soups and chili will be especially welcomed, Pearce said.
In addition to food suppliers, people willing to put in legwork, including meal delivery volunteers with the Highland Lakes Crisis Network, are needed in the fight against hunger. Volunteers like Marble Falls resident Jennifer Jones and her eight children donate their time and energy to the cause by delivering meals and supplies to households in Marble Falls, Granite Shoals, and Spicewood.
“Delivering food was a really simple way we could help a lot of people,” Jones said. “Last summer, we got involved because (the Crisis Network) was delivering food because of COVID. I bring different kids with me each time. This week, it was two of my kids and two of their friends, which is cool because we get to help spread the word about how to help.”
During the summer 2020 peak of the coronavirus pandemic, Crisis Network volunteers helped deliver more than 175,000 meals to Highland Lakes residents facing pandemic-related difficulties such as unemployment.
“We might be gearing up to do this again,” said operations team leader Rachel Naumann, who cited concerns about the uptick in COVID-19 cases caused by the delta variant. “I think it’s definitely something we’re already planning in our head to help these people.”
Over the summer, the organization continued delivery services, focusing especially on families in need by partnering with the Marble Falls Independent School District to deliver free school lunches to students who could not make it to pickup locations.
“It has been identified that there are 95-plus homeless kids in (MFISD),” Naumann said. “The way we’ve been trying to reach out is helping get school meals out to those who can’t make it to the pickup stations at the school.”
People interested in helping to fight hunger but who are unable to donate food, monetary resources, or volunteer hours can advocate for the cause in smaller ways, Naumann said.
“We’re always posting statistics and stories,” she said. “Even just sharing those things on Facebook to get the word out helps.”