A jolly group of volunteers eagerly waved vehicles into their lines Thursday morning at the East Texas Food Bank mobile pantry produce distribution in Longview.

Two lines in the Greggton United Methodist Church parking lot were competing for cars, causing drivers to smile and laugh.

“I come because I enjoy it,” said volunteer Mary Broome. “We have a good time.”

The volunteers all are members of the church, and most have been working the drive-thru pantry since it started.

The food bank also hosts larger drive-thru food distributions in Longview to help thousands of families, but the mobile food pantry is more neighborhood-focused and strategic. Distributions at Greggton United Methoidist are held 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. the first and third Thursdays of the month. A second location in Longview at Centro Vidas Revolucionadas on South Green Street is open 4 to 6 p.m. also the first and third Thursdays of the month.

Broome’s friend, Betty Hunt, worked in the same line of cars.

“We compete to help more people,” Hunt said, laughing. “We have a system — we load ‘em and go.”

Mobile food pantry specialist Tabitha Johnson said Longview’s Pine Tree area is her home, and she’s happy to see people excited to help.

“In these areas like Pine Tree, everybody here wants to take care of their neighbors — that’s what they want to do,” she said.

Johnson said the mobile pantry usually helps about 200 families.

“We saw about a 74% increase in need at the height of the pandemic,” she said.

The group had about 9,000 pounds of produce, including potatoes, apples, cabbage and onions, to distribute Thursday.

“It helps out a lot,” Johnny Ross said as volunteers loaded bags of produce into his truck. “It’s a blessing, and all these people are here to help.”

Many families struggle to keep fresh produce in their homes because of cost and even lack of transportation, according to the food bank.

Ross said he has been to the mobile food pantry before.

“Especially when the prices are so high at the store now,” he said. “I’m on a fixed income with Social Security, so it really, really does help.”

Silve Reyes also picked up food Thursday at Greggton United Methodist.

“It’s a lot of help, because I take care of my parents, and I’m a single mom,” she said. “It helps me save money.”

The East Texas Food Bank mobile pantry program targets neighborhoods with a high number of people and families facing hunger, using U.S Census data to determine what areas have the greatest need.

“This program is designed to go in and address pockets of poverty in neighborhoods,” Johnson said. “This is designed to come in and address neighborhood hunger, scarcity and that sort of thing.”

The program began in November, and the distribution is open to anyone with no documentation or eligibility requirements. Mobile pantry sites operate throughout East Texas. For information and a list of locations, visit easttexasfoodbank.org/programs/mobile-pantry/ .

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Courtney Stern is a public safety reporter covering a wide range of topics. She grew up in Baltimore and later earned a journalism degree from the University of Miami. Stern moved to East Texas from Iowa with her husband and two dogs, Pebbles and Bam Bam.