The Houston Food Bank turns 40 as food insecurity, poverty continue to skyrocket

On most afternoons, long lines of cars wrap around the Bible Way Fellowship Baptist Church as Texans wait their turns to pick up fresh meat and produce, canned goods and other items from the food pantry of the southeast Houston church. Many come from nearby areas where one in five families live in poverty and the median income is only two-thirds of the Houston metropolitan area, and so demand is always strong.

But, with families still recovering from pandemic-related job losses and inflation eating away at-tight finances, demand has only increased. Bible Way Fellowship can barely keep the shelves stocked as it aids hundreds of families each day.

“It’s been overwhelming,” said Tomeka Brewster, director of the church’s food pantry. “We have seen a massive increase in the need for food.”

Bible Way Fellowship is one of 1,600 local charities and organizations that rely on the Houston Food Bank, which has collected, stored and distributed food for the region’s poor and struggling families for four decades, fighting hunger and providing a safety net through booms, busts and disasters. As the food bank marks its 40th year in operation, the lines at Bible Way Fellowship show that the need for the charity has been hardly diminished.

Nor have the challenges. COVID-19 eroded the food bank’s army of 85,000 volunteers, many of whom have yet to return. Meanwhile, service demands remain about 25 percent higher than before COVID as Texans continue to rely on charity to combat skyrocketing inflation that has pushed national food prices up by more than 9 percent since two years ago.

“I wouldn’t call it precarious,” said Houston Food Bank President and CEO Brian Greene. “But it is tight right now.”

Of course, it’s not the first time food bank has faced budget holes, skyrocketing demand and uncertainty. The past five years, which encompassed a devastating hurricane, pandemic, recession and oil bust, have proven particularly trying. But, if anything, the past 40 years have shown that the Houston Food Bank and the charities that rely on it — as well as the workers, volunteers and donors who support it — have staying power.

‘In a place like this?’

Food banks were still a relatively new idea in the early 1980s when David Williams arrived in Houston for a finance job at Shell Oil. Williams, then 22, volunteered with a local religious nonprofit just as charities were debating how to address hunger in Texas. Their best answer was to pool resources and donations together, establishing in 1982 what would become the Houston Food Bank.

A year later, Williams was tapped as the organization’s director. He was 23 and knew almost no one in Texas. The Food Bank’s first few years were tough, he said, with questions about oversight, licensing and sanitation standards, and fears that the mostly volunteer groups might distribute spoiled or expired foods. Nor was there much motivation to address hunger in Houston, which was enjoying an oil boom as the rest of the country struggled with high inflation and a deep recession, Williams said.

Texas’ culture of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” added to the challenge. Meanwhile, free-market Reaganomics and a government-is-the-problem philosophy weakened the social safety net, further ingraining a go-it-alone mentality into America’s ethos and economic policy, he said.

“Why do we even need a food bank in a place like this?” he remembers hearing.

Still floundering, Williams and other anti-poverty crusaders argued that food banks were, at their core, a private-sector approach to a problem. “It doesn’t involve government — this is between the food industry, the private sector and volunteers,” he told naysayers. “And suddenly there were a lot of folks saying, ‘This is the answer – we don’t need food stamps.'”

From its headquarters at an old department storefront in northeast Houston, the Food Bank’s first staff convinced local TV stations to air donation drives and raise awareness of the hunger issues faced by many of Harris County’s 2.7 million residents.

They formed partnerships to receive excess food from local restaurants and food manufacturers. They bought an old bus and adorned it with flower paintings — “like in the Partridge Family,” Williams said, referring to the 1970s sitcom featuring a family rock-and-roll band. It became their main mode of transporting masses of, say, potato chip bags that had gone undelivered from Frito Lay’s nearby factory, or 60,000 frozen turkeys that had been preserved in a warehouse for two years.

It was prescient timing — the oil industry collapsed not long after, ending Texas’ economic high almost overnight and leaving thousands of Houstonians in dire straits, some for the first time ever. Two years into the crash, the three-year-old Food Bank and its 10 employees coordinated the delivery of more than 3 million pounds of food and materials — 10 times the volume of its inaugural year.

It wasn’t enough. “More go hungry despite all efforts,” read one 1985 Houston Chronicle headline. “’New poor’ straining local food aid programs,” read another headline in 1986, as Texas unemployment reached near-record highs and the Food Bank disbursed 7.5 million pounds of food, more than the previous three years combined.

A lifesaver

The Food Bank has played a crucial role after every economic crash or natural disaster since then. As another 2 million people moved to Harris County — and as social welfare and poverty programs were cut or scaled back — it has remained one of the most important parts of the local safety net for the 18 counties it now serves. Leaders say that nearly 2 billion pounds of items have been distributed since the Food Bank’s inception in March 1982.

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