LEANDER, Texas (KXAN) — For nearly 40 years, Hill Country Community Ministries in Leander has been a staple for community members combating food insecurities and the impacts of food deserts.
When HCCM’s executive director Tiesa Hollaway joined the nonprofit in 2015, the organization served an average of 325 families a month. In the years since, the combination of COVID-19 pandemic impacts, inflation and other cost factors have resulted in an average of 2,500 families seeking resources each month.
“We’re seeing more emergencies, we’re seeing more new families — new families or families that have never had to come to the food pantry before,” Hollaway said. “And what people don’t realize is most of the families that come here, it’s transitional.”
By transitional, Hollaway explained many families are navigating increasing monthly bills and are needing to find alternative revenues to provide food for themselves and their families. And inflation impacts aren’t only affecting families; previously, HCCM purchased 29% of its food supply and relied on donations and community partnerships for the rest. Now, HCCM is purchasing 32% of its food supply.
It’s been a one-two punch, Hollaway said: client demand spiked at the onset of the pandemic, then dipped to pre-pandemic levels at the start of the year. Come March, as gas prices and inflation took hold of the market, so, too did the calls spike once again.
HCCM is one of the recipients of the St. David’s Foundation’s $28 million in grant funding awarded in late August. The nonprofit received a $50,000 grant to fund its strategic plan, a document that will outline the future trajectory of the organization.
Hollaway said as demand levels have spiked in recent years, the need for a solidified plan on how HCCM will continue to expand and adapt to the needs of clients is critical. The document will outline the next three to five years of HCCM’s community initiatives.
And these community initiatives continue to grow as HCCM works to serve the more rural parts of northwest Travis County and Williamson County — areas that are met with their own unique food access challenges. When Hollaway began with HCCM in 2015, the nonprofit had six community programs; now, the organization has expanded to 24 programs.
One of its most essential offerings, Hollaway said, is its mobile food distribution program. With limited public transit resources in western Williamson and northwest Travis counties, the program identifies high-need and underserved areas to distribute fresh produce to residents.
Currently, the program’s mobile food distribution truck stops at nine locations within the region. Some of HCCM’s primary target zones include Leander, Liberty Hill, Cedar Park, Lago Vista, Jonestown and northwest Austin, with resources available in Granger, Florence and Jarrell as well.
When discussing food insecurity, Hollaway said the conversation can tend to focus on needs in Austin’s urban core. But as costs of living and inflation impacts have risen, the suburban and rural communities in the metro area are feeling the weight of that impact, as well.
“[Leander’s] population has more than doubled in the last 10 years, our cost of living has more than doubled, but have your wages?” Hollaway said, adding: “Not only is transportation an issue, cost of living is not that cheap any longer in the rural areas. But then you also are dealing with what we call the underserved.”
Underserved areas include those where the local food pantry might only be open one day a week, or during traditional business hours. Many people who utilize HCCM’s in-house community cupboard for services are also employed and can’t afford to take time off work to gather food.
With this latest grant funding, Hollaway said she envisions HCCM as a “true resource center” that marries together the organization’s food pantry work with emergency crisis response, job trainings and other community resources.
“We will become a true resource center. Not only will we start with the food pantry, but we will bring in other agencies to help facilitate, help coordinate help,” she said. “Just help our people with other resources that we have identified are a big need that we’re missing on this side of the county.”