The economic contraction in response to the threat of COVID-19 has generated a powerful surge in demand for food assistance. In the third week of April, 2020, Crossroads’ Food Pantry served 1,106 households in just 4 days—more than five times the weekly average for February. Of these, 791 self-reported that they had never received assistance from Crossroads before. Since then, the weekly demand has stabilized at more than double pre-COVID levels. Pantry services for the first half of 2020 have already exceeded the total for all of 2019, by pounds distributed. (See two attached charts illustrating the surge in demand and year-over-year distribution.)
Many of those seeking assistance are doing so for the first time in their lives. For those who were already at high risk for food insecurity, the economic and public health crises have only deepened their vulnerability and social isolation. These include children who rely on school meal programs, seniors, people with disabilities and chronic health conditions and all those with life-long experiences of income and asset poverty. Women and children of color are disproportionately represented among these risk groups. Feeding America estimates a 43.5% increase in child food insecurity in Dallas County for 2020. This means nearly 1 in 3 children (30.3%) may be at risk of hunger this year.
Crossroads is committed to doing everything possible to meet the increased demand and continue to supply partners with foods vitally needed in their communities. To do so safely has required significant changes in operations, including the shift to a drive-thru Pantry and the replacement of most of our volunteers with ShiftSmart workers and National Guard provided to Crossroads by North Texas Food Bank.
Although safer and more efficient, the drive-thru model does not offer our clients food choices. For now, everyone receives pre-packaged grocery boxes in numbers that depend on simple household head counts.
To restore some choice to families this summer, we are piloting a Grocery Gift Card program for children who are missing school-based meals and relying on our drive-thru service. The program provides parents with cards that can be used at local grocery stores to purchase complementary foods and missing ingredients needed to prepare culturally appropriate meals they know their kids will enjoy.
Crossroads opened in 2001 as an outreach ministry of First United Methodist Church, Dallas and became an independent 501(c)(3) organization in 2015. Crossroads is not a 509(a)(3) organization.
In 2006, Crossroads pioneered Hub and Spoke, a food distribution model that leveraged the enormous compassion and volunteer spirit in North Texas to establish a network of distribution sites operated by diverse, neighborhood-based organizations. These include places of worship, schools, apartment complexes and retirement centers, among others. We call them Community Distribution Partners (CDPs).
CDPs provide a consistent supply of nutritious groceries to households in which socio-economic factors become barriers to healthful eating. Food assistance is accessible when it is available close to the people who need it. This saves time, money and effort. Accessibility also means that elderly and disabled people have the support they need. CDPs distribute the food they get from Crossroads within 48 hours, a timeframe that makes it unnecessary to become certified as a food pantry, build new pantry infrastructure or keep inventory. In 2011, Hub and Spoke was adopted by North Texas Food Bank (NTFB) when they invited Crossroads to become the first Hub in their 13-county service area.
In 2007, Crossroads developed its signature Nutrition-Based Food Selection System—an algorithm based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans—with the help of a registered dietician. Prior to COVID-19, the system helped each household served at our in-house Pantry select enough healthful groceries to prepare roughly 21 balanced monthly meals for each household member, based on their age, gender and activity level. For example, a three-person family with dad working construction and two male teenagers would receive more pounds of groceries than a single mom with three children, aged 3, 5, and 8, because of the significant difference in the two households’ caloric needs. Whatever the household composition, being generous is best. Providing too little food risks wasting the time and effort of everyone involved and encourages people to travel between multiple pantries to accumulate what they need.
In 2009, we began capturing client data that included demographics, income, physical and mental health markers such as BMI and depression, social connectivity and food insecurity screenings. In 2011, we established CARE (Community Assistance Research). CARE is led by Dr. Tammy Leonard, a behavioral economist now at University of Dallas, and Dr. Sandi Pruitt, in Clinical Sciences at UT Southwestern Medical Center (UTSW).
Since the establishment of CARE, Crossroads has received more than $1 million in external, peer-reviewed funding for research and pilot projects that include UTSW or Crossroads as primary awardees. We launched two major projects of this type in 2019: SNAP-Appointment Coordination (SNAP-AC) and The BUILD Health Challenge® (described below).
In 2019, Crossroads relocated from a 10,000 sq. ft. facility in downtown Dallas to a 72,000 sq. ft. distribution center on South Cockrell Hill Road, the former home of North Texas Food Bank in the heart of southern Dallas. We now serve southern Dallas, Ellis and Navarro Counties through a growing distribution Network that consists of 80+ CDPs, 44 Agencies operating food programs and Crossroads’ own in-house, client-choice Pantry (currently in the drive-thru version).
In our first year in the new facility, Crossroads served 32,773 individuals through this Network—12,622 of whom were children—and total distribution more than doubled, to 5.5 million pounds. These services saved our clients an estimated $11 million in food expenses—about $1,000 per household.
Crossroads is committed to meeting basic needs with urgency, while honoring the dignity of everyone we serve. We are also committed to making the most of our relationships with clients by engaging them in research studies and pilot projects that offer the potential to improve services and enhance longer-term economic and health outcomes.
SNAP-AC is funded by a $500,000 multi-year grant from the W. W. Caruth, Jr. Fund of Communities Foundation of Texas, with Crossroads as the lead. This randomized controlled study will allow us to determine whether timing food pantry services based on when someone receives Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits can prevent household food shortages and improve health outcomes, i.e. better nutrition, fewer emergency room visits and decreased financial stress. Currently, most clients who receive SNAP (formerly Food Stamps) come to Crossroads’ Pantry only after their benefits have run out. We are proud to say that this trial continues even amid COVID-19. Our partners are UTSW, University of Dallas, NTFB and Sharing Life Community Outreach.
The BUILD Health Challenge® is a $250,000 multi-year, national grant opportunity also awarded to Crossroads as the lead. Our local BUILD Health Challenge project focuses on improving health equity and outcomes in southern Dallas. Our partners in this project are UTSW, Parkland Health and Hospital System, Dallas County Health and Human Services and University of Dallas. Through it, we will embed health and wellness counseling, screenings, immunizations, telehealth experiences and safety net services offered by community partners within food distribution sites, beginning with two of Crossroads’ CDPs. Our long-term goal is for our collaboration to continue beyond the grant period so that, together, we can offer this integrated service model to all CDPs, Partner Agencies and other service providers.
Crossroads’ new “flow-based” Client Care Database (CCD) by Salesforce is the most significant technological advance we have made in nearly two decades. “Flow” is a powerful automation tool that enables geo-mapping of client residences, instant Spanish/English translation, remote ordering from a live Pantry inventory using our Nutrition-Based Food Selection algorithm, user-friendly research surveys and the capacity to do much more. Previously, Pantry volunteers required 2-3 days of training before they could help clients order food and conduct our surveys; now, they can do both within 20 minutes.
Post COVID-19, all CDPs will begin using this powerful, highly intuitive tool. To prepare for “new normal” operations at Crossroads’ Pantry, we’re working with Salesforce to integrate state-of-the-art calendaring, so all clients can set/change appointments via phones or tablets. Never again need they suffer waiting in wait in long lines. Salesforce is also working on affordable licensing that will allow clients to order Pantry groceries digitally. The pandemic has made this an even more urgent priority.
Projected Outcomes (January – December 2020)
In the year of COVID-19, we currently project a 67% increase in distribution—to 9.2 million pounds—enough for families to prepare 7.7 million meals and save $18.4 million in expenses. Another original 2020 goal was to add 12 new partners to our CDP network. We are excited to announce we have already exceeded it. While difficult to estimate the total number of individuals our services will touch, we expect the people we serve to more than double, to a minimum of 75,000—an estimated 26,550 of whom will be children.
Chell is a local small business owner. He works in transportation and recycling, but because he’s in hishe is in his 60’s and haswith health conditions, and it wasn’t safe for him to keep working after the pandemic began. “We really don’t know when I’ll be able to go back to work,” he says. In the meantime, Chell has been caringcares for his two grandsons, ages 2 and 4, who have been without reliable access to daytime meals since their daycare and preschool closed. Thankfully, Chell has been able to help provide for his grandkids’ nutritional needs. He can visits Crossroads to get food while he waits for the virus to subside. “This has been a blessing for us to keep food on the table,” he says of the food pantry. Chell hopes to reopen his business when he knows he can provide his services safely and efficiently. Until then, it’s a tremendous relief to know he has somewhere to go for food. He knows his family would be facing hunger if it weren’tnot for the community’s support. “Thank you,” he says. “You just don’t know how much it means to us who have to rely on support like this for the first time.”