Vegging Out

Houston Food Bank focuses on fresh produce, filling Texas kids' hunger gap

Houston Food Bank focuses on fresh produce, filling Texas kids' hunger gap

Everyone knows what it’s like to feel hungry — temporarily.

Whether the result of a packed schedule, poor planning, unexpected incidents or complicated daily routines, most have experienced the aftermath of forgoing food: Headaches, irritability, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, dizziness and the perpetual stomach growl.

The condition is usually relieved by shameless overeating, feeling nauseated and vowing never to repeat these series of unfortunate events.

It's a pattern.

But what if you were not able to relieve your hunger? What if you didn’t have the means to do so?

Some may argue that you would become quite an enraged individual. And there are studies that correlate hunger with anger, creating very dangerous communities.

Hunger and Obesity

Globally, hunger and obesity are not isolated problems, according to Ellen Gustafson, co-creator of the FEED bags. In her TED Talk, Gustafson describes the ending of a broken 30-year cycle that began in 1980 after the oil crisis: Americans eating more refined grains, more added fats and oils and more added sugars with 75 percent of U.S. crops being soy, corn and wheat.

We are also celebrating the 30th anniversary of patents for genetically modified crops, the introduction of high fructose corn syrup and the decline of small farming.

The problem at home

Texas ranks second highest in the country with a 16.3 percent food insecurity rate, and according a USDA press release, this number has increased significantly: 13 percent in Houston.

When it comes to children’s rate of food insecurity, Texas ranks at the top.

What does hunger look like in Houston? Statistics defy any preconceived expectations: 47 percent are children, 49 percent of households have at least one working adult and 94 percent are not homeless.

Houston also holds the title of ninth fattest city in the U.S. Which begs the question: How can we possibly be obese and hungry simultaneously?

Hunger was thought of as a temporary problem fixed by increasing calorie intake. However, clients served by food banks, pantries and kitchens exhibited higher rates of obesity and diabetes than the national average.

Going beyond feeding the hungry

The Houston Food Bank has had to adjust to this changing reality.

Last year regular distribution reached 46 million pounds of food, in addition to 20 million pounds for disaster relief. This year regular distribution skyrocketed to 65 million pounds.

Most families that need hunger relief cycle in and out of poverty as their incomes fluctuate. However, middle-income families hit with the difficulties of current economic conditions cannot readily adjust their fixed expenses — such as car payments and mortgages. Collaborating agencies continue to demand more support as a result of increased need.

“Hunger is episodic,” Brian Greene, president of the Houston Food Bank, explains. “Families need help temporarily. But we also have the problem of what people eat daily, and it’s worse for low-income families.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, families that earn below the poverty line miss the threshold by $8,000. It’s an overwhelming gap.

A fresh new strategy

“The Houston Food Bank has changed a lot in the past five years,” Greene says. “We are finding new ways to tap into supplies. Fresh produce for us has become huge. We are trying to make it a third of our distribution.”

Greene is determined to raise the money to be able to afford fresh produce. “According to the USDA, 3.4 billion pounds of produce grown in the U.S.. is not harvested while 3.3 billion pounds is harvested but not sold.”

Its fate? Whether eaten by animals or rotting in the field, the resource goes to waste, although Greene prefers to see it positively, as an opportunity.

“We are going directly to the farmers and the packers and offering to subsidize the cost for picking and bagging. We can make this cost-neutral for them while they earn the tax write-off.”

In turn, the Houston Food Bank is providing their 400-plus partnering agencies — food pantries, soup kitchens and shelters — something more helpful than the typical things that go into a food box.

This is a strategy that Greene hopes is adopted by other food banks.

“We are attempting to effect lifestyle change. We are also starting to tie food distribution to related services like health screenings and diabetes testing.”

But handling fresh produce requires a change in operations, not just for the Houston Food Bank but also for the agencies handling the product. Shortened shelf-life and refrigeration require changes, including additional storage and transportation equipment.

“Houston has a very positive spirit. It’s one of the best places to start a business. Houstonians have a unique positive outlook, and people are here to get things done,” Greene says.

With the help of 28,000 volunteers contributing over 120,000 hours of service a year, Greene is able to pursue food that requires work.

Houston Restaurant Week — which is a lifeline fundraiser for the food bank — is still going on right now, having been extended through Labor Day.

This year, the Houston Food Bank expects to distribute over $90 millions worth of food into the community operating on an $18 million budget.

Building a sustainable operation

“When I interviewed for this job about five years ago, we had already maxed out this building. Since that time, our services have doubled” Greene says.

Unlike a business, increase in services does not equate to an increase in revenue.

By May 2010, Greene plans on moving to the Sysco Distribution Center on I-10 just east of downtown, increasing square footage from 73,000 to 298,000 and becoming the largest food bank in the world through the largest capital campaign in food banking history.

One-hundred-thousand square feet of excess freezer space will be rented out, and potential revenues generated will cover 100 percent of the utility bills plus most of the maintenance costs.

In collaboration with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Harris County Probation and Houston Community College System, the Houston Food Bank will also implement “Serving for Success.” The program will train inmates for reintroduction into the workforce while allowing Greene to earn additional funds as an education provider.

“Between these two initiatives, we can move into this new building with no increased costs. Any additional fundraising efforts will go directly to serving our constituents,” he says.

Nonprofits are notorious for finding ways to do a lot with very little. Although there is always a danger of taking on too much, Greene’s philosophy is ambitious.

“Nonprofits have to find a way to get off that shoestring. Sometimes it's not about how much you save, it's how much net did you generate.” 

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Texas ranks No. 1 in food insecurity for children. Photo by Joel Luks
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It's a labor of love for food bank volunteers. Courtesy of Houston Food Bank
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Brian Greene, president of the Houston Food Bank, shows off plans for the new site on I-10 east of downtown. Photo by Joel Luks
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The new expanded future home of the Houston Food Bank Courtesy of Houston Food Bank
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Volunteers sorting and packaging bulk foods Courtesy of Houston Food Bank
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The Houston Food Bank, an institution that works with more than 400 agencies to eradicate local hunger while advocating for lifestyle change Courtesy of Houston Food Bank
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One of the biggest fundraisers for the Houston Food Bank every year is Restaurant Week.