CENTRAL TEXAS — According to a new report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, food insecurity at the national level remained unchanged between 2019 and 2020. In Central Texas, though, it's a different story.
The new numbers show that one in eight Texan households had trouble putting food on the table in 2020, and according to local charities, this year's numbers may be even higher.
13 percent - that's the number of Texas families last year who had questions about where their next meal would come from. That places the state above the national average for food insecurity. Above-average trends are nothing new for the Waco area.
Robert Gager, executive director of The Shepherd's Heart, says Waco has long outpaced the state averages for hunger.
"Here in Waco, I just don't understand why we can't move that needle," said Gager. "We're having a tough time moving that needle."
The USDA study found 10.5 percent of families in America struggled with food insecurity in 2019, and that number did not change the following year. Locally, however, the pandemic's effects were much different.
"The numbers of families that we served last year during the pandemic were a lot more than what we did the previous year," said Gager.
Gager believes that the statewide statistics do not accurately represent the level of need in Central Texas.
"I don't know if we're at one in six or one in seven, but I don't think it's one in eight," said Gager.
I spoke with Caritas of Waco to ask what they've observed during the pandemic, and they back up Gager's claims.
"Even for McLennan County, we're exceeding that," said Caritas co-executive director Alicia Jallah. "I mean we're at almost 17 percent food insecurity rate. So that's even one in six people."
Jallah tells me those numbers are courtesy of Feeding Texas. Like The Shepherd's Heart, Caritas had their hands full when COVID-19 shut many things down. The pandemic gave rise to a huge influx of families who suddenly found themselves unable to keep their pantries full.
"We were seeing double to triple the number at times the number of families that we were normally serving pre-pandemic," said Jallah.
We're not out of the woods yet, but Waco will soon have another tool in its arsenal to combat hunger. Gager will be moving The Shepherd's Heart to a new building, which will help them be better equipped to serve their mission.
"Once we get into our new facility, we're going to make an impact," said Gager. "We're going to make a bigger impact than what we've been able to do with the limited facilities that we've got here."
Shepherd's Heart currently operates out of a building on 34th Street, but it doesn't leave much room to operate and there is no dedicated space for trucks. The new building is on 26th Street, and is in the process of being renovated.
Not only does it offer much more space, but there are plans to have refrigerated and frozen rooms, plus a loading dock for trucks. Gager says if things go according to plan, they should be ready to move into their new facility by early October.
It's one way The Shepherd's Heart will be stepping up to meet the sizeable need for food in the community.