A line of vehicles packed with families stretched nearly half a mile down Minnesota Avenue, around the corner, and up Boca Chica Boulevard on Wednesday morning. Residents gathered for a food distribution event outside the Ozanam Center, where volunteers and shelter residents loaded bags of fresh goods into trunks and car windows underneath the hot sun.

Food insecurity appears to be a growing issue in Cameron County. Events like the one at Ozanam Center have consistently drawn large crowds. Often, supplies run out before all those waiting can be served.

Volunteers from a nearby church, as well as Planned Parenthood and a few residents of the shelter loaded 300 grocery bags filled with baked goods, bread, tortillas, milk, and more into cars. Roughly 800 total were prepared for the event, said the center’s Executive Director Victor Maldonado.

Ozanam Center needs volunteers on Wednesdays and anyone interested is encouraged to reach out. Prior to COVID-19, the shelter distributed food via local church kitchens once a month. Now, the shelter is providing the service each Wednesday at 9 a.m.

Ramped up food distribution efforts in combination with an uptick in local evictions means that staff is in need of supplies for residents. A full list of necessary items is available on the shelter’s website, www.ozanambrownsvillecenter.org.

While a variety of donations are welcome, Maldonado can source food in bulk from Food Bank of the Rio Grande Valley and make monetary donations go further than the average consumer. He noted that the shelter also needs fabric shopping bags to distribute the food in a sustainable way.

Two furloughed restaurant workers sourced through United Way of Southern Cameron County’s participation in the #GetShiftDone initiative loaded pink grocery bags printed for the 2020 Census with food for families in preparation for Wednesday’s event, though Ozanam Center itself stepped up to assist those impacted by pandemic-related closures, as well.

The center recently hired a furloughed restaurant worker on the spot after learning he spent several days living in his car. Chris was a server on track to become management. His dad passed away last year and he was a month into his new position when the pandemic hit.

Staff at Ozanam Center hired him on, gave him a place to stay, and put him to work helping cook the shelter’s three meals a day. Chris hopes to get back on his feet soon. He described feeling strange asking for help — like many others, he never expected to find himself living homeless and was taken off guard by the sudden change. “They took me in. They gave me a job. Now I’m here. They really are great people. I’m trying to help out as much as I can,” he said.

Right now, the shelter is housing around 45 residents.

esheridan@brownsvilelherald.com