The Houston Food Bank is partnering with more than 500 groups and over 3,000 volunteers this month to prepare and distribute meals to the 18 counties they serve with numerous events throughout the Houston region.
September is Hunger Action Month which originated 25 years ago, and the Houston Food Bank and other hunger relief agencies across Harris County want to raise awareness to the issue of hunger in the Houston-area.
The Houston Food Bank primarily serves low-income people and President and CEO Brian Greene said providing food helps families pay other bills.
"What we found is that very often, what we’re really helping them do is pay their rent or pay their utility bills," he said. "Food is just the most flexible, expensive food the families have."
Greene said most of the families rely on the food bank when funds are running low.
"Food insecurity isn't about food, it's about income," he said.
According to the Houston Food Bank, more than 1 million people in Southeast Texas are food insecure which means they do not have access to nutritious food in order to live a healthy lifestyle.
The food bank has experienced shortages in food supplies over the past year, making it a challenge to reach everyone in need.
During the pandemic, the Houston Food Bank saw a big increase in the need for food across Greater Houston, with long lines at distribution centers.
"The early months of the pandemic were just really awful, where the need just shot through the roof," said Greene.
Greene said many families experienced lay off from jobs and did not have any money to fall back on – especially low-income families.
Later in the pandemic, Greene said the need for food started improving as low-income people were receiving raises from the jobs they did have.
"For the first time in literally decades, we were seeing a significant increase in a lot of the wages for the lower income workers," he said. "Wages were going up by $1, or $2, or even treated $4 In some cases per hour."
That didn't last long as inflation began to affect people again – especially the low-income. It wasn't just the rising cost of food going up – everything was costing more.
"So for a low income family, they generally spend well over 50% of their income on food and transportation costs. So those two sectors have seen very high cost increases that really hit them particularly hard," said Greene.
Greene said some food pantries have rules to where they can only serve families once a month and other families don't access the food services as often as they need to.
"We’re hoping that they’ll ask for help sooner, because it's when they get to the point where you don’t have enough money to pay rent, now you’re in big trouble, ”he said.
Greene said during the pandemic a lot of families were reluctant to ask for help due to fear of being judged by others until they adopted the curbside model for pickup.
"We saw families who previously would not go to the pantry would ask for help, because it was in a more anonymous way, even if we were recording the information, it just didn’t feel as intrusive or judgmental," he said.
The summer time is when the Houston Food Bank has to increase their productivity due to school being out. A lot of families rely on the free breakfast and lunch that's provided to students during school.
"Contrary to what most people might assume, the greatest time of child hunger is actually summer when the kids are not in school," he said. "This is also one of the reasons why during the pandemic, especially when the schools were closed, it was a real problem for low-income families."
Although children are back in school, prices on everyday things are still high. The food bank is working with its network of more 1,500 community partners to receive more resources.
“The more we are able to provide inexpensively, the more they’re going to be financially stable," said Greene.
Greene said even if that means working with families more than once a month to receive certain food items.
"It’s really trying to work with our partners to be more generous whenever we can distribute more frequently to families in need, especially when you’re doing fresh fruits and vegetables that you can’t expect the bananas to last for a month, ” he said.
In June, the Houston Food Bank announced its expansion with a second location in Northwest Houston with a 53-acre parcel donated by Chevron. Greene said it will take time and more money to get the second location running.
"We’re gonna be a few years away from that, we’re [going to] need to raise a lot of money in order to make that happen," he said. "The original gift from Chevron, that’s definitely a great shot, but we’ve got a ways to go there."