Houston Food Banks Battle Skyrocketing Food Insecurity During Pandemic

Local food banks have found new ways to meet increased food insecurity needs during the pandemic, even as Texas has cut a food bank grant almost in half.

Food insecurity has more than doubled in Southeast Texas since March, according to Reginald Young, the chief strategy officer at the Houston Food Bank. Before the pandemic, a large-scale food distribution would serve 300 to 400 families; now, that number has increased to anywhere between 1,500 to 8,000 families at any given time.

The Mamie George food bank center in Richmond, which is run by one of the Houston Food Bank’s partners, Catholic Charities, went from serving roughly a thousand families in a month to serving 2,000 families a day during the pandemic, according to Catholic Charities Communications Director Betsy Ballard.

“It’s humbling to think of how much need is in the community,” Ballard said. “The greatest need is going to be in the population that was vulnerable before the pandemic hit. People who were already living in poverty are going to have the hardest time scraping together resources to counter additional hardship posed by unemployment. Things are beginning to open up again, but it’s going to be a slow crawl back.”

Meanwhile, last Thursday, the Texas Department of Agriculture cut 44 percent of the Surplus Agricultural Product Grant, which provides fresh produce to food banks from farmers who are struggling to sell all of their crops.

The $1.9 million cut comes as a result of Governor Greg Abbott’s directive to trim agency budgets by 5 percent, according to Feeding Texas, the state’s largest hunger-relief organization.

“It makes no sense,” said Celia Cole, CEO of Feeding Texas. “This grant provides direct aid to two groups hit hardest by the pandemic: Texans who lost their jobs, and farmers who saw the majority of their business disappear practically overnight. Why would we slash funding for a program that feeds hungry people and supports struggling farmers at a time like this?”

Young said the Houston Food Bank will have to be creative in how it meets needs in response to this budget cut.

“One of the things that we’re always mindful of is being able to be diverse in how we source food items, so when there’s [a cut] in revenue source to acquire food items, we’re going to rely more heavily on others,” Young said. “That includes everything from working with local distributors like local grocery stores [to] working with local farmers’ associations that may be growing food items that they cant sell.”

Young also said that food banks have benefited from food assistance programs created specifically in light of the pandemic.

“We’ve been fortunate in the sense that there have been new revenue streams, specifically because of COVID-19,” Young said. “But obviously these resources are going to end at some point. So right now we’re thinking a lot about how we can continue to source food items efficiently with what we assume will be an elevated need within the community [as well as] advocating to continue the current [food assistance programs] programs.”

According to Young, the Houston Food Bank has also leaned on its network of partners in the area to continue meeting needs. While there was a decrease in partners at the beginning of the pandemic, Young said that the number has now bounced back

“Some of our partners were not able to stay open during COVID-19,” Young said “In some cases, their volunteer base was led by senior citizens who are at higher risk. In other cases, partners didn’t have the space to work in a socially distanced format. We identified other partners from the community, like the City of Houston, to identify partners on a temporary and permanent basis to meet increased need.”

One of those partners, Catholic Charities, the nonprofit branch of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, has greatly expanded its food services during the pandemic.

The Mamie George Community Center has been converted into a super site in partnership with the Houston Food Bank, transitioning from a farmer’s market set-up to a no-contact drive through where families register beforehand and volunteers place food in open trunks or truck beds. Households can receive up to 60 pounds of fresh food and non-perishables.

“During the pandemic, we’re kind of Catholic Charities on steroids,” Ballard said.

Ballard said that since the closure of the community center, which usually gives out hot meals during the week, Catholic Charities also created a delivery service program for those without transportation and has since made over 4300 deliveries with food and baby items.

“There was a senior on her porch, and we were standing at a safe distance away and she was literally in tears and said, ‘I’m just so stressed, I’m so worried about everything and I’m afraid to go out,’” Ballard said, recounting one of the deliveries she made. “Another senior told us that this was the only food she gets during the week. It’s just humbling.”

The Houston Food Bank has also begun delivery programs, partnering with Amazon to get food items to those in need.

“Being an organization that has to respond to a lot of disasters, from COVID-19 to hurricanes, one thing about us is that we tend to really become problem-solvers,” Young said.

A volunteer helps during a food drive hosted by the Houston Food Bank.EXPAND

A volunteer helps during a food drive hosted by the Houston Food Bank.

Photo by Maggi Massad, Houston Food Bank

At the Houston Food Bank, 18 workers have tested positive for COVID-19 since June 2. Each time, the food bank took measures to deep clean the space and in some cases, used video footage to confirm who the infected worker came into contact with.

On July 15, the food bank wrote that the City Health Inspector looked favorably on the precautions established in March and April and “confirmed HFB is taking all precautionary health and safety measures as well as executing proper CDC sanitization.”

These practices include social distancing measures, room occupancy limits, mask enforcement and outfitting the cleaning team in coveralls, goggles, and gloves.

Social distancing requirements partnered with most people staying at home greatly limited the manpower available to the Houston Food Bank, according to Young. Because the food bank relies heavily on volunteer work to run, it had to work with the YMCA and the National Guard to get enough volunteers to meet the community’s need.

According to Young, that extra labor combined with the addition of two new warehouses helped spread out volunteers to meet social distancing requirements and distribute enough food to battle the increase in food insecurity.

Catholic Charities food center volunteer Walter Cedillos said he feels safe during his weekly volunteer shifts. The volunteers are distanced, wear masks and gloves, and get their temperatures checked.

“I feel like the way they go about it is the best, given the situation with COVID-19,” Cedillos said. “I see that they truly care about the community and give out as much as they can.”

Both the Houston Food Bank and Catholic Charities said they’re looking for donations and volunteers, and people can sign up on their websites. Cedillos said he’s been volunteering with Catholic Charities for about a month now.

“I was blessed,” Cedillos said. “When I was younger, I received help. It’s the best thing that we can do as humans.”

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