Houston Food Bank turns 40 as food insecurity and poverty continue to soar

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Most afternoons, long lines of cars wind around the Bible Way Fellowship Baptist Church as Texans wait their turn to pick up meat and produce, canned goods and other items . from the church pantry in Southeast Houston. Many come from nearby areas where one in five families live in poverty and the median income is only two-thirds of the Houston metro area, so demand is still high.

But, as families are still recovering from pandemic-related job losses and inflation eats away at already tight finances, demand has only increased. Bible Way Fellowship can barely fill the shelves as it helps hundreds of families every day.

“It’s been overwhelming,” said Tomeka Brewster, director of the church pantry. “We have seen a massive increase in food requirements.”

Bible Way Fellowship is one of 1,600 charities and local organizations that depend on the Houston Food Bank, which has collected, stored and distributed food for poor and struggling families in the area for four decades, battling the hunger and providing a safety net through booms, busts and disasters. As the food bank celebrates its 40th anniversary, Bible Way Fellowship lines show that the need for the charity has barely diminished.

Neither are the challenges. COVID-19 has eroded the food bank’s army of 85,000 volunteers, many of whom have yet to return. Meanwhile, service demands remain about 25% higher than before COVID, as Texans continue to rely on charity to combat soaring inflation that has driven national food prices up by more than 9% since two years ago.

“I wouldn’t call it precarious,” said Brian Greene, president and CEO of Houston Food Bank. “But it’s tight right now.”

Of course, this isn’t the first time a food bank has faced budget holes, soaring demand and uncertainty. The last five years, which have encompassed a devastating hurricane, a pandemic, a recession and an oil crisis, have proven particularly trying. But, if anything, the past 40 years have shown that the Houston Food Bank and the charities that depend on it — and the workers, volunteers, and donors who support it — have power.

“In a place like this?” »

Food banks were still a relatively new idea in the early 1980s when David Williams arrived in Houston for a finance job at Shell Oil. Williams, then 22, volunteered with a local religious nonprofit just as charities were debating how to fight hunger in Texas. Their best response was to pool resources and donations, creating in 1982 what would become the Houston Food Bank.

A year later, Williams was named director of the organization. He was 23 and hardly knew anyone in Texas. The food bank’s early years were difficult, he said, with questions about oversight, licensing and sanitation standards, and fears that mostly volunteer groups were handing out spoiled or expired food. Nor was there much incentive to fight hunger in Houston, which was experiencing an oil boom while the rest of the country was struggling with high inflation and a deep recession, Williams said.

The Texas culture of “pick up by your boots” added to the challenge. Meanwhile, free-market Reaganomics and a government-is-the-problem philosophy have weakened the social safety net, further entrenching a go-it-alone mentality in America’s economic ethos and policy. did he declare.

“Why do we even need a food bank in a place like this?” he recalls being heard.

Still floundering, Williams and other anti-poverty crusaders argued that food banks were, at their core, a private sector approach to a problem. “It doesn’t involve the government – it’s between the food industry, the private sector and volunteers,” he told opponents. “And suddenly a lot of people were like, ‘That’s the answer – we don’t need food stamps. “”

From its headquarters in a former storefront in northeast Houston, the food bank’s first staff convinced local television stations to air donation campaigns and raise awareness of the hunger issues facing many of the 2 .7 million residents of Harris County.

They have formed partnerships to receive excess food from local restaurants and food manufacturers. They bought an old bus and adorned it with flower paintings – “like in the Partridge family,” Williams said, referring to the 1970s sitcom featuring a family rock and roll band. It became their main means of transporting masses of, say, bags of potato chips that hadn’t been delivered from the nearby Frito Lay factory, or 60,000 frozen turkeys that had been kept in a warehouse for two years. .

It was prescient timing – the oil industry collapsed soon after, ending Texas’ economic peak almost overnight and leaving thousands of Houstonians in dire straits, some for the first time. Two years after the crash, the three-year-old food bank and its 10 staff coordinated the delivery of more than 3 million pounds of food and supplies, 10 times its inaugural year’s volume.

It wasn’t enough. “Others Go Hungry Despite Best Efforts,” read a 1985 Houston Chronicle headline. “‘New Poor’ Strain Local Food Assistance Programs,” read another headline in 1986. , as unemployment in Texas hit record highs and the food bank shelled out 7.5 million pounds of food, more than the previous three years combined.

A lifeline

The food bank has played a crucial role after every economic crash or natural disaster since then. As an additional 2 million people have moved into Harris County — and social welfare and poverty programs have been scaled back or scaled back — it has remained one of the most important parts of the local safety net. for the 18 counties it now serves. Leaders say almost £2billion worth of items have been distributed since the food bank was established in March 1982.

And it pulled many like Marcy Arbusto out of despair. The retired home nurse relied on the food bank after her son fell ill and she had to sell her house to cover hospital bills a few years ago. “It was my lifeline,” the 70-year-old said. “Because I lost everything. I had no money or anything.

In September 2017, days after Hurricane Harvey’s downpours ended, the food bank distributed more than 22 million pounds of food and cleaning supplies — three times its normal monthly amount — as well as 42,350 pounds of snacks. schoolchildren, an increase of 71%.

The two years after Harvey remained difficult. Financial support, including federal money for disaster recovery, fell by more than $81 million in 2019, and the food bank faced rising insurance and building repair costs from Harvey. Service needs declined as post-storm reconstruction progressed, but demand remained high as southeast Texas was battered year after year by tropical storms and flooding that particularly affected the low-income areas.

Conditions were just beginning to stabilize when COVID-19 arrived, leaving millions out of work overnight and, much like the oil crash of the 1980s, suddenly unsure of how they would keep food on the table. table. With volunteers housed in their homes, food bank officials quickly began revamping their operations and delivery processes so they could meet the needy where they were.

In the first year of the pandemic, the food bank distributed 300 million pounds of food – an 85% increase on the previous year, and a boon for those like Irene Alvarez, 71. The retired school secretary is one of hundreds of people who turn to Bible Way Fellowship for food every month, which she distributes to neighbors who don’t have a car or are too busy with work or babysitting to get to the pantry. She said hunger had been a more common problem in her neighborhood near Hobby Airport since the pandemic and had not diminished as inflation continued to climb.

“Everything is just more expensive,” she said. “(Prices) are going up more and more, and there are more and more people in need.”

Greene, the food bank’s president, said he hopes the pandemic – and the overnight recession it has caused – has changed Americans’ thinking about hunger, poverty and the social safety net. . He hopes this has highlighted the systemic inequality that he says is at the heart of these issues.

Greene would like to one day lose his job and have hunger so rare that, like 40 years ago, food banks feel unnecessary for most Houstonians. He doesn’t see that day coming any time soon. Instead, he prepares for the next disaster and the long lines of Texans who will inevitably turn to the Bible Way Fellowship Baptist Church and other local food pantries for help.

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