RAYMONDVILLE — The monthly food distribution program at American Legion Post 390 is more like a church social than a government assistance program.
There is no pushing or shoving as people line up for packages of pasta, rice, canned vegetables, juice and cereal. On Wednesday, 317 people received food.
“We’ve been doing this for 2 1/2 years and we just got another six-month grant,” Legion Post
Commander George Solis said Wednesday of a grant the Food Bank of the Rio Grande Valley receives to distribute food in Willacy County.
“When we started off, it used to be just for disabled veterans,” Solis said of the program. “Then we extended it to the rest of the community.”
The program is now for persons aged 60 and over, as long as they are Willacy County residents and are below the federal poverty guidelines, Solis said.
The program was started with a $25,000 Federal Emergency Management Agency grant right after Hurricane Dolly in 2008, Solis said. Now the food bank provides the food and the Legion provides the building, parking lot and legionnaires volunteer to help with distribution, he said.
Applications are screened by RGV Food Bank workers, he said. Federal income guidelines are used to determine who is eligible, he said.
“It’s a nutritional program for the elderly,” he said. “They have vegetables and fruits and cereals. … They try to keep it as healthy as possible.”
Members of the Legion post or the Ladies’ Auxiliary act as “facilitators,” helping people deal with paperwork or loading food packages into their cars in the parking lot, Solis said.
Suzanne Byers, a 21-year Army veteran, said she never considered joining the American Legion until she learned about the food distribution program.
Dressed in a stars-and-stripes blouse with a Legion vest over it, she helped food recipients load boxes and bags of food into their cars in the parking lot.
“I was born and raised here,” she said. “I was wary of joining the American Legion, but it’s another family.”
“I always just thought it was bars, good ol’ boys, drinking and dancing,’” she said.
But American Legion members in Raymondville are always ready to pitch in when somebody needs help, Byers said.
“We have unexpected funerals,” she said.
Zack Gonzales, who is finance officer for the American Legion post, said he has been working with the food program since it began 2 1/2 years ago.
“We usually get over 100 people,” he said. “The First United Methodist Church at Third and Hidalgo also does this.”
The program is for residents of Willacy County who are 60 or over and food is also distributed at Catholic churches in Lyford and Sebastian, Solis said.
Also the program distributes food to home health providers, or other registered caretakers of elderly people as well as representatives of group centers for elderly people.
“Some of the adult day care centers, they come out here and pick up food for all their clients, pick up food for 40 or 50 people at a time,” Solis said. “So we don’t have those 40 or 50 people here and they take it back to the centers to distribute out there,” he said.
Participants wait on metal folding chairs in the air-conditioned Legion hall to receive a ticket and then receive the food from an RGV Food Pantry truck in the parking lot, Byers said.
“It’s a very orderly process, it works out real well,” said Solis, who is also a Willacy County justice of the peace.
Participant Noe Gonzalez, who served in the Army for 24 years, is now an American Legion member. He was reluctant to sign up for the program at first.
“People told me, ‘You’re a veteran, you should come,’” he said. “I didn’t want to, too much pride. But I’m retired, if you’re on a set income, it helps,” he said.
The program helps stretch monthly Social Security checks or pension payments, he said.
“Every time you go to H-E-B, it costs you $100,” he said, laughing. “I hope they don’t stop it. This is my second time. I see a lot of my friends here.”
Soveida S. Longoria, whose husband was in the Marine Corps for 30 years and then was a boxing coach at Marine Military Academy for 10 years, died about six months ago, she said.
The food program helps her stretch pension checks from her husband’s military service, she said.