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As Oil Labor Force Shrinks, West Texas Food Bank Expands

The growing number of oil rigs pulled in from the oilfield and stored in this lot in Odessa, Texas is a testament to the steep decline in the price of crude oil in the last year. (Lorne Matalon)

Oil has been trading below $30 a barrel this week and that’s bad news for the labor force in the Permian Basin. Some workers aren’t just out of a job, they’re barely staying afloat. But there's one safety net that’s gotten bigger.

This summer in a cramped Odessa office of the West Texas Food Bank, Director Libby Campbell was looking to stretch her wings: "You know we’re in the process of finishing our first building, which is a 61,000 square foot state-of-the-art facility that has triple the size of cooler and freezer than we have now, so we’ll be able to store more fresh foods."

But she’s there now, with an official opening of the new facility in Odessa. And the new cooler-freezer space is making a difference – for example, when the dairy guys came knocking. "So within the second hour that we were moving in, we were able to take an extra donation of milk that we have never been able to accept before."

More warehouse space matters, but it’s not just for storing food, but serving it, too. "Starting on February 1," says Campbell, "we’re going to be feeding an additional 300 children every day warm meals that we’ve never been able to provide before."

That kitchen was donated by the company BHP Billiton, an oil and mining company. Bob Manelas is General Manager for local operations: "Even though that the price of oil has been down, you know, we remain steadfast to the community and the community needs."

In addition to corporate sponsors, there’ve been individual donors, like Don Bennett, who gave an anchor gift of a million dollars to get the project started. "And from there, they raised almost 14 million dollars in 13 months."

He’s on his way to a donor appreciation event, and says, that many workers losing their jobs face food insecurity. "And some of them can afford to move away and find another job, but some of them are stuck here, in greater needs and great numbers than ever before."

The West Texas Food Bank serves 19 West Texas counties. The old facility could store 5.2 million pounds of food for distribution, but the new one can handle double that amount.

Former KRTS/KXWT News Director