More People Seeking Help From Houston Food Pantries

It's Thanksgiving, and many Houstonians say we should be thankful the recession did not hit as hard here as in other parts of the country. But advocates say that even if you have a job, it doesn't mean you can put food on the table. Local food pantries are coping with rising demand.

They used to be called “the hungry.” Now you sometimes hear about people facing “food insecurity.” But whatever the label, the numbers are increasing. Forty-six million Americans are now on food stamps, and that’s a record. In the Houston region, more people are turning to food pantries, many for the first time.

Aaron Herrera is with the Houston Food Bank.

“We see a lot of teachers come in here. We see a lot of city employees come in here that used to have jobs, they don’t have jobs anymore. It’s changed really a lot over the past year.”

Texas has the second-highest hunger rate in the country, after Mississippi. The Census Bureau reports that 19 percent of Texans have trouble getting enough food, compared to 15 percent nationwide.

As you can imagine, the Houston Food Bank is one of the largest in the country. It distributes food to nearly 500 agencies in southeast Texas — which in turn feed 137,000 people every week.

One of the agencies is the Christian Community Service Center. It operates a small food pantry near the high-rise towers of Greenway Plaza. Michelle Shonbeck is the executive director.

“While we always help really the poorest of the poor, what we’ve also seen during this downturn has been working families.”

Shonbeck says visits have jumped by 75 percent in the past three years.

“What you see with working families is they’ve either lost their job or they’ve had their hours cut back. And what you see with the elderly is they’re trying to stretch their Social Security dollars. And they also have prescription meds and they also have utility bills just like you and I do. And so we’re able to bridge that gap for them.”

Deandra Carothers rides the bus here once a month to get food. She’s 53 and lives in the Third Ward.

“I’ve been dealing with food pantries about 15 years now. It’s a pretty good pantry. It’s a real good pantry. They give you nice things.”

Carothers was visiting food pantries even when she worked as a home health aide. She had to stop working in 2009 when she got sick. Now she gets $80 a month in food stamps — and that’s still not enough.

“No, it’s not much. And we just, it’s a scuffle for us poor people out here.”

Houston Food Bank VolunteersHelping the hungry has almost become a holiday cliché. People donate more during the holidays, and that surge of money helps keep the doors open year round at soup kitchens, pantries and shelters. But people also love to volunteer during the holidays, and that can cause logistical problems.  

Brian Greene is president of the Houston Food Bank.

“I almost envision that there’s got to be neighborhoods where they’re like chasing the homeless down the street to try and give them a turkey. You know, overwhelming people they want to volunteer on Thanksgiving and you know hunger doesn’t go up on Thanksgiving. Need is not any higher on that day. I mean it’s nice to do something special, but we’re dealing with a much larger problem. And so what we really try to encourage is for people to volunteer and give the rest of the year.”

To learn how to donate money or to volunteer at any time, visit