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Local food banks have found new ways to meet the heightened food insecurity needs during the pandemic, despite Texas cutting a grant to food banks nearly in half.
Food insecurity in southeast Texas has more than doubled since March, according to Reginald Young, chief strategy officer at Houston Food Bank. Before the pandemic, a large-scale food distribution would serve 300 to 400 families. Now that number has risen to 1,500 to 8,000 families at some point.
The Mamie George Food Bank Center in Richmond, operated by one of Houston Food Bank’s partners, Catholic Charities, served around a thousand families a month and 2,000 families a day, Betsy Ballard, according to the Catholic Charities’ communications director during the pandemic.
“It is humble to think about how much need there is in the community,” Ballard said. “The greatest need will be in the population that was at risk before the pandemic. People who have already lived in poverty will find it hardest to scrape together resources to counter the added plight of unemployment. Things are starting to open up again, but it will be a slow way back. “
Meanwhile, the Texas Department of Agriculture last Thursday cut 44 percent of the surplus farm subsidy that provides food banks with fresh produce for farmers struggling to sell all of their crops.
The $ 1.9 million cut is a result of Governor Greg Abbott’s instruction to cut government budgets by 5 percent, according to Feeding Texas, the state’s largest famine relief organization.
“It doesn’t make sense,” said Celia Cole, CEO of Feeding Texas. “This grant will directly support two groups hardest hit by the pandemic: Texans who have lost their jobs and farmers who have lost most of their business practically overnight. Why should we cut funding for a program that feed hungry people and support struggling farmers? ” at a time like this? “
Young said the Houston Food Bank needed to be creative to meet needs in response to that budget cut.
“One of the things we always think about is that we can be different in the way we source food [a cut] We will rely more on others for the source of income from food purchases, ”said Young. “This includes everything from working with local retailers such as local grocery stores [to] Working with local farmers’ associations who may grow food they cannot sell. “
Young also said that food banks have benefited from nutritional aid programs specifically launched in the face of the pandemic.
“We were fortunate to have new revenue streams, particularly due to COVID-19,” said Young. “But obviously these resources will end at some point. Right now we are thinking a lot about how we can continue to source food efficiently, assuming that this will be an increased need within the community [as well as] advocate continuing the flow [food assistance programs] Programs. “
According to Young, the Houston Food Bank has also relied on its partner network in the region to continue to meet demand. While there was a decline in partners at the beginning of the pandemic, Young said the number has now increased again
“Some of our partners couldn’t stay open during COVID-19,” said Young. “In some cases, their volunteer base has been run by seniors who are at higher risk. In other cases, the partners did not have the space to work in a socially distant format. We have identified other partners in the community such as the City of Houston to temporarily and permanently identify partners to meet the increased demand. “
One of these partners, Catholic Charities, the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston’s nonprofit branch, has significantly expanded its catering services during the pandemic.
The Mamie George Community Center has been converted into a super location in collaboration with the Houston Food Bank. The transition from a farmer’s market to a contactless drive, where families register in advance and volunteers put groceries in open suitcases or truck loading areas. Households can receive up to 60 pounds of fresh groceries and non-perishable goods.
“We’re sort of a Catholic steroid charity during the pandemic,” Ballard said.
“During the pandemic, we’re kind of like a Catholic steroid charity.”
Ballard said that since the community center closed, which normally serves hot meals during the week, the Catholic charities have also put in place an untravelled delivery service program and have made over 4,300 deliveries of food and baby items since then.
“There was a senior citizen on her porch and we were a safe distance away and she literally had tears in her eyes and said, ‘I’m just so stressed, I’m so worried about everything and I’m scared of going out,” Ballard said and told of one of her deliveries. “Another senior told us that this is the only food she gets during the week. It’s just humble.”
The Houston Food Bank has also launched delivery programs and is working with Amazon to deliver groceries to those in need.
“As an organization that has to respond to many disasters, from COVID-19 to hurricanes, one thing about us is that we tend to become real problem solvers,” said Young.
A volunteer helps out during a food drive hosted by the Houston Food Bank.
Photo by Maggi Massad, Houston Food Bank
At Houston Food Bank, 18 employees have tested positive for COVID-19 since June 2. Each time the food bank took steps to thoroughly clean the room and in some cases confirmed with video footage who the infected employee came into contact with.
On July 15, the food bank wrote that the city’s health inspector positively assessed the precautionary measures established in March and April and “confirmed that HFB is taking all precautionary health and safety measures and is performing proper CDC disinfection”.
These practices include social distancing measures, limiting room occupancy, enforcing the mask, and equipping the cleaning team with overalls, goggles, and gloves.
Young said the social distancing requirements associated with most people staying at home severely restricted the workforce available to the Houston Food Bank. Because the food bank relies heavily on volunteering, it has had to work with the YMCA and the National Guard to attract enough volunteers to meet the needs of the community.
According to Young, that extra manpower, coupled with the addition of two new camps, has helped distribute volunteers to meet social distancing requirements and distribute enough food to counter increasing food insecurity.
Walter Cedillos, a volunteer at the Catholic charities’ food center, said he felt safe during his weekly volunteer shift. The volunteers are distant, wear masks and gloves and have their temperatures checked.
“Given the situation with COVID-19, I think the way they are going is the best,” said Cedillos. “I see that they really care about the community and give as much as possible.”
Both the Houston Food Bank and Catholic Charities said they are looking for donations and volunteers, and people can sign up on their websites. Cedillos said he has been volunteering with Catholic charities for about a month.
“I’ve been blessed,” said Cedillos. “When I was younger I got help. It’s the best we can do as humans. “
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Anna Ta is a Rapporteur who works with the Google News Initiative to cover local and regional news for the Houston Press. Born and raised in Houston, she is always on the lookout for the strongest and sweetest Vietnamese coffee that is humanly possible.