In the middle of the night, Elise Earnhart Bigony left her Mesquite home and drove west on Interstate 30. She stopped in front of Fair Park’s gates and slept for a few hours in her 1992 Cadillac Eldorado.
“I didn’t know when people would start lining up,” she said before the sun came up. “I knew if I didn’t get here when I did, I’d have a panic attack and would just shut down and not come at all.”
Her anxiety paid off. At 1:45 a.m. on May 14, she was the first in line for one of the North Texas Food Bank’s largest distributions of food. Thousands of cars — broken-down sedans and brand new luxury SUVs alike — lined up behind her for boxes of potatoes, canned soups and bags of chunked chicken.
As she sat in her car smoking Marlboro Black Red 100s, she reflected on her life and wrestled with whether she deserved to be in line at all.
“There are probably people worse off,” she said.
At least she has a job at a call center where she’s worked for five years, though it’s only part-time. Her $1,300 rent is largely subsidized by the government, but she tries to keep the air conditioner off so her electricity bill isn’t out of her means. At the moment, she’s terrified of going to the grocery store because she doesn’t want to contract the coronavirus. A little food variety for her, her two adult sons and extended family couldn’t hurt.
“Maybe I shouldn’t be here. Maybe I shouldn’t be the first in line,” the 47-year-old said, holding back tears. “At times, I don’t think I’m worthy.”
The pandemic is forcing a reckoning for the United States’ social safety nets — government and nonprofit alike — as a historic number of Texans have joined the unemployment rolls. And the food bank saw so much need that it passed out a record-breaking 92 million meals during its last fiscal year, largely because of the virus. The food bank expects demand to stay high for the next two years.
As the sun rose over Dallas and the lights framing downtown’s skyscrapers faded, a buzz of activity surrounded Elise. Police officers on bikes circled while volunteers finished placing the last barricades that would split the modern day breadline into two lanes. Families of all sizes and colors sat in cars that wrapped around the expansive fairgrounds.
“What time did you get here?” a cop yelled from behind the iron gate.
“1:45 a.m.,” she answered.
He appeared both stunned and impressed. “You’ll follow one of us down the road.”
Elise pulled out from her bag a giant milk chocolate Easter bunny she bought at a Dollar General, or as she calls it, “the yellow-bag store.” She got it for 90% off, she said, biting off an ear.
As 8 a.m. approached, the gate opened, and Elise, along with a police escort, led the parade of hungry and worried down a bumpy road that ran about 2 miles behind the fair to parking lot 15A where the National Guard waited to hand out food.
Elise took home four boxes, but it would not be her last visit to a food bank.
‘Nothing will go to waste’
Elise’s journey to the front of the line at Fair Park is the story of millions of Texans who are considered the working poor.
Long before the coronavirus disrupted the economy, forcing millions of people to rely on assistance such as unemployment and food banks, Elise and many like her lived paycheck to paycheck. About 43% of all Dallas County residents can’t afford basic needs, according to a 2019 survey by the United Way. They get by, in part, thanks to a tattered quilt of government assistance programs and community resources.
In Elise’s case, Veteran Affairs not only helps with rent but her health care, including thousands of dollars worth of medication each year for anxiety and bipolar disorder. Elise, who was honorably discharged after serving nearly three years in the Air Force, also receives $18 a month in food benefits from the state. She usually spends that on canned tamales and ravioli from the “yellow bag store.”
Money has always been tight for Elise, who grew up in Greenville, about 90 minutes northeast of Dallas. Her dad drove trucks for a living, and her parents constantly fought over money, she said. At 15, she became exhausted listening to their screams. So she got a job at McDonalds to help pay the bills.
At one point, she recalled, her father was laid off. Instead of telling his family, he pretended to go to work when in reality he was searching for a new income.
“He hustled,” she said. “He taught me you can’t depend on anyone else but yourself. We’ve always been survivors.”
Over the past three decades, Elise, a mother of three, has taken her father’s lesson to heart. She’s battled addiction. And she has overcome her husband’s overdose death and the loss of her father. For nearly five years, she’s found stability in her part-time job at a call center — she’s now a team lead — after a prison stint for using a fraudulent credit card to buy gas and groceries. These days, like many forced to stay home because of the coronavirus, she works from a makeshift office she set up in her bedroom.
When Elise returned home from Fair Park, she set the boxes on her kitchen counter next to the gas stove. The microwave above the stove is held together by packing tape from the U.S. Postal Service.
Her modest three-bedroom ranch home in Mesquite is tucked away in the Country Club Estates neighborhood northwest of where Interstates 30 and 635 meet. Despite the tony name, the median household income for the neighborhood is just $52,000.
“If I wasn’t on housing,” she said, “I would not be able to afford this place.”
Elise has several mouths she’s helping to feed. She shares her home with her two adult boys, who split their time between Mesquite and Ennis, where their dad lives. Her friend and her 3-year-old boy frequently stay with her too. His toys litter the living room.
Behind Elise are two refrigerators that she acquired. One is partly broken — the freezer still works but the lower compartment doesn’t.
“It’s indescribable how this will help out with the meals,” she said as she sliced open the first box. “I don’t like to go out much. This will help with exposure to COVID. I don’t believe it’s on the down slope.”
The first item she pulled out, chunky chicken: “It looks like an MRE,” she said, short for “meal, ready-to-eat,” a compact food package used by service members.
Cans of corn, peaches and low-sodium vegetable soup — good for her high blood pressure — followed. The second box had fresh potatoes, two bags of red apples and Valencia oranges.
“It’s everything we like,” she said. “Nothing will go to waste.”
Worrying the pandemic would get worse, Elise decided to attend the May giveaway after seeing a news article on social media. Like for so many people in line, the free food meant she had one less expense to worry about in an uncertain time.
When Congress started doling out stimulus checks, it gave Elise a rare chance to get ahead. She squirreled away a chunk of the money for a rainy day fund — something she’s never had.
About a month after visiting the food line, Elise learned of another windfall. As part of its response to the coronavirus, Congress provided billions of dollars in food subsidies. In April, Gov. Greg Abbott announced Texans would receive maximum food benefits based on family size for two months — totaling $165 million.
For Elise that meant her state-issued debit card used to buy food had a jaw-dropping additional $1,000.
On a sun-scorched Saturday afternoon, she drove to an ALDI grocery store. Wearing a bandana to cover her face, she entered the store and headed to the canned food section.
As she walked down the aisle, she grabbed four cans each — the maximum allowed by the grocery store — of fruit cocktail, whole potatoes and beans.
Rounding out the grocery store she picked up boxes of macaroni and cheese and two cases of apple sauce.
Ninety dollars and 55 cents later, Elise rolled her cart of non-perishable items out to her car. And like the National Guard Troops before her, she loaded boxes of food into her trunk.
Paying it forward
Early that Monday before work, Elise cranked up 635 toward the North Texas Food Bank’s sprawling food distribution center in Plano.
Only this time, Elise wasn’t going there to pick up food. She was going to donate what she’d bought at Aldi that weekend.
A little after 8:30 a.m., she parked in the empty lot and walked to a side door.
After reading the instructions to leave the donation in the basket, she returned to her car to move it closer so she wouldn’t have to haul the boxes of canned fruits and vegetables.
She turned the ignition. Nothing happened. Elise’s face flushed with worry and embarrassment as the food bank’s staff — including CEO Trisha Cunningham — made their way toward her.
“My car won’t start,” Elise said. It probably just needs to cool down, she told them.
The staff brought a cart to Elise, who lifted the canned goods out of her car.
“Thank you for blessing someone else,” Cunningham said to Elise after she donated 100 pounds of food.
After a final round of thank yous and goodbyes, Elise returned to her car.
It still wouldn’t start. She banged her head on the steering wheel and took a deep breath.
She popped the hood, exposing the engine and other guts of the car in immaculate condition. She jacked the car up, grabbed her tools and slid underneath. Her first guess proved right — a starter wire was loose. She reconnected it but will probably need a new one.
“Older cars are easier to work on,” she said, wiping oil off her face.
She loaded her tools in the trunk and drove home to start her shift.