Houston Meals Financial institution: The COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating already excessive ranges of meals uncertainty within the space
The Houston Food Bank is looking for more volunteers as it is responsible for increased food distribution during COVID-19. (Courtesy Houston Food Bank)
Houston Food Bank’s production grew exponentially during the COVID-19 pandemic as thousands of families depend on the organization and its partners for support. Food bank officials said this includes many recently unemployed people who are experiencing financial hardship and food insecurity for the first time.
Nicole Lander served as the Houston Food Bank’s chief impact officer for three years, leading food sourcing, partnerships and programs. She is also a registered nutritionist with more than a decade of experience managing food service operations and educating individuals about proper health and diet.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Learn more at www.houstonfoodbank.org.
How would you describe the food insecurity issues in the greater Houston area prior to the COVID-19 pandemic?
Before the pandemic, around every fifth child lived in a food-insecure household in our supply area. The latest estimates show that the number is 1 in 4, which shows that food insecurity has definitely risen. Possibly with evictions and some other financial measurements, that could even be 1 in 3.
What we do know is that food insecurity for households with children was already a major problem, and all the more so as unemployment rose and worsened. Approximately 1.1 million people across our coverage area are considered food unsafe, and we serve approximately 800,000 families in an average year. So we’ve already had the opportunity to serve more households, but that number has doubled since the beginning of COVID-19.
Can you point out the importance of balanced, nutritious meals? What are the possible negative effects if these requirements are not met?
Food insecurity is part of the social determinants of health and is directly related to the overall management of chronic diseases. Approximately 40% of the households in which we work have type 2 diabetes or heart disease, which is directly related to poor diet.
As a food bank, we have spent the past five years striving to improve the distribution of perishable foods, namely products. Our organization counts nutritious food production. So when we get a cake or french fries, we don’t count that pound. In this way, our partners attach great importance to passing on nutritious foods to people.
COVID-19 has definitely shown that most people don’t cook at home – it’s so much easier, for a household already struggling to drive through something and buy something, than it is to go to the store and have a full meal to buy with fruit. Vegetables and cereals.
Obesity is definitely a direct link to food insecurity in adults. That’s because people choose to consume high-calorie and high-fat products to make them feel full. The rarity of the meals is also a reason for this. If you are not sure where your next meal is coming from, choose these unhealthy products and, less often, which causes your body to store fat.
People strive to choose food based on their income. So our role as an organization is to ensure that we provide nutritious food to households so that they no longer have to make that compromise. Low cost foods have saturated fat and things that will make your health worse. Eating a balanced diet is extremely important, and that doesn’t mean you are low in carbohydrates or low on keto. it just means that you are eating whole foods.
Besides poor health, what effects does food insecurity have on children?
Not only are children not doing so well at school – due to lower attendance and poor health – they are also more likely to be bullied and have suicidal thoughts. Some of these things are not discussed as often and are a key aspect of child starvation.
This is related to poor development due to poor diet and a lack of stability and support from the adults in the household. Children feel less nourished when they are hungry – especially in our culture where food is the focus of celebration. When you see everyone eating cookies and cakes and you don’t have those things, you feel more isolated.
What are some systemic problems that could keep families caught in the cycle of poverty and food insecurity?
Loss of wages and unemployment are one reason. When the unemployment index rises because the economy continues to shut down, our needs increase. When people are not accommodated due to evictions, we definitely know that food insecurity is escalating.
How much has food bank demand increased during the pandemic and do you have any predictions that this demand will soon decrease?
During a typical day at the pre-COVID-19 grocery bank, we handed out roughly 400,000 pounds of food, and right now we’re doing 1 million pounds a day. We don’t expect production to decline until the spring, and that depends on how the economy gets people back to work.
What were the major challenges the Houston Food Bank faced in meeting this increased demand for services?
Our biggest challenge was reducing the number of volunteers in our building. Due to COVID-19, we have reduced capacity. These people helped us build boxes and bags to distribute, so we really had to rely on alternative sources – hire additional staff, work with the National Guard and nonprofits to rebuild our capacity.
What might the process of navigating resources for families who may be facing food insecurity for the first time?
The easiest thing for someone unfamiliar with this world is to achieve 2-1-1 and they will guide them through that process. The food bank has its own hotline, under which we can refer you to ours [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] Educational staff. If you use our website and enter your zip code, you will also be shown where the nearest pantry is.
Is there anything special you would like to see in the upcoming legislation to fill the gaps for families dealing with food insecurity?
We are receiving funding from the Texas government to provide products that will help farmers get paid for products they cannot sell in the market and give us the ability to save that food. At the moment we know the budget needs to be cut and we want the budget to be increased – not reduced.
The other thing is to make sure that we don’t have any additional qualifications than that [U.S. Department of Agriculture] requires people to be eligible for SNAP. Texas has a very strict work requirement on SNAP and we would like these to be removed.