The Food Bank of the Rio Grande Valley has seen its fair share of challenges throughout its existence in its efforts to feed the hungry, but few could have envisioned the steep hills it would have to climb in a year with seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

“This year — and I’m sure I speak for everybody on Earth — was unlike any year that we have ever seen, could ever imagine seeing, and we hope to never ever see again,” Stuart Haniff, chief executive officer of the food bank said.

The food bank was forced to change the way it operates when the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in the Rio Grande Valley back in March, and has since seen families’ needs mount month after month.

Now at the end of the year, after observing demand surge higher than it’s ever been, Haniff said the nonprofit has had to reconsider one of its core functions.

“We have seen through the impact of COVID the unprecedented surge in demand up seven-fold,” Haniff said. “It caused us to really reexamine and shift the way that we distribute food.”

Those changes included moving the emergency food pantry from indoors to outdoors for a drive-thru model in order to provide a safer environment for all involved.

“We had a stance of being proactive and not reactive, prepared and not scared,” Haniff said. “We had to always try and get out in front of this because we never knew what would come next.”

As Haniff said, demand for food increased seven-fold and the number of clients served by the food bank more than doubled from 64,000 to upwards of 142,000. This, according to the CEO, led to individuals coming to the food bank for help who hadn’t previously needed such assistance.

“With the unprecedented demand, something that was really telling to us, many of the people who access our services have never had to use a food bank or a program ever in their life,” Haniff said.

He noted that many of those individuals came from working families who now found themselves in not only a health crisis, but also a financial crisis. The food bank had to accommodate senior citizens who were now unable to get to the food, as well as students whose schools were not providing meals.

“All of this had a really deleterious, harmful effect not just on the day-to-day life but on the future,” Haniff said. “We see so many of our businesses at risk or having gone away. So many people’s livelihoods taken away. We saw that this is a health and financial crisis, and this was an impact on hunger where traditionally it’s the lower classes that are affected. With COVID, it became an issue where middle class families and individuals, it did irreparable damage.”

With the food bank managing to stay above water this year, the future raises more questions.

The Texas Tribune reported that food banks across the state are projecting food shortages in the coming years as a result of federal and state programs set to expire in December.

“On a statewide level, our governor has called for a 5% budget cut across the board,” Haniff said. “The Department of Agriculture has allocated those cuts from the surplus ag grant. That is such a vital fund for us because it’s what’s used by food banks to source fresh Texas-grown produce from our area farmers.”

He explained that the RGV Food Bank is unique because of the area’s role in produce cultivation and distribution not only for Texas but the entire country.

“We know that the Texas Department of Agriculture is proposing a massive 50% cut to their programs, and that will be responsible for 19.8 million pounds, or 60.5 million meals for Texans across the state still struggling to recover from COVID and unemployment,” Haniff said. “Our food bank is projecting, expecting, preparing for a loss of over $160,000, which equates to 1.7 million pounds of food, at a time when we are tripling our distribution per week from 300,000 pounds to well over 900,000 pounds.

“You can imagine that 1.7 million pounds of food is a complete … I wouldn’t even say it’s a deal breaker. It’s a deal ender.”

He added that the food bank has seen its distribution rise from 22 million pounds over the same period last year over six months to over 33 million pounds.

“COVID has impacted every aspect of what we do because it’s impacted every aspect of the clients that we serve,” Haniff said.

He said that what has helped the food bank stay afloat throughout this tumultuous year has been the support and generosity of donors. But with the decrease of funds and the perpetual growth in demand for food, the future of the food bank looks dire.

“We’ve managed to stay ahead of the curve because we are prepared, not scared, and we want to make sure that whatever comes next — and we’ve seen a bit of everything in 2020 — that we have managed our capacity because we realize that people don’t just have to eat today, they have to eat tomorrow and they’re going to have to eat in 2021,” Haniff said. “We have to keep one eye on today, but also always one eye on the future.”

Monetary donations can be made by visiting the food bank’s website, www.foodbankrgv.com.