By Aswad Walker
Even before the pandemic hit, the greater Houston area was home to far too many families dealing with a serious lack of food on a daily basis. According to a 2020 survey by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), 13.9% of the Houston/Harris County population reported being food insecure (lacking reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food). And children suffered most, as nearly one in four youth under the age of 18 in Houston/Harris County were food insecure.
Those 2020 numbers were part of a nine-year downward trend, meaning from 2011 to early 2020, the Houston area saw a lower percentage of its residents as food insecure. Then enter COVID-19.
During the pandemic, the number of Texans who “didn’t have enough to eat” in a one-week period soared to over three million in July of 2020.
Amazingly, however, those numbers dropped to just over 1.5 million by August of 2021, according to U.S. Census Household Pulse data analyzed by the report, in large part because of increased federal spending on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
But don’t dismiss the impact the We Are One Mobile Food Pantry, a weekly food giveaway effort, has had on pushing back on Houston-area food insecurity. The effort is led by Richard Andrews, founder of the Foundation for Black Heritage and Culture which is the organization that sponsors the city’s annual Black Heritage Fest.
“The food pantry effort was born in 2020 right after we held our 5th Annual Black Heritage Fest and COVID really took hold in the city of Houston, and we wanted to do something that really impacted the Houston community,” said Andrews. “And what better way to impact the community than to distribute fresh food, fruits and vegetables, to our community.”
Andrews said, to bring his vision of community service to life, he and his team reached out to any and everybody, including multiple Houston City Council members, Mayor Sylvester Turner’s office, the Houston Food Bank, Shrine of the Black Madonna Cultural and Events Center and others.
“It is a collaborative partnership to host this food giveaway each and every Saturday from 11a.m. to 2p.m.,” said Andrews, via a huge understatement.
Besides those partners already mentioned, Andrews has been able to unite elected officials, community organizations, activists and corporate partners to this effort to stem food insecurity.
“Partners, we have so many, including Feed the Children, VIP Media, Councilmember Carolyn Evans Shabazz, US Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, US Congresswoman Senator Sylvia Garcia, Target, H-E-B and so many others,” he shared.
And it’s a good thing, because fighting hunger requires an “all-hands-on-desk” effort.
The FRAC survey found that one in four Americans (35%) worry about having enough money to put food on the table in the next year. This is especially troubling when you consider that food insecurity is associated with chronic health problems in adults including diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, hyperlipidemia, obesity and mental health issues including major depression. And as social workers regularly report, when parents are doing bad, the negative impacts are magnified upon their children.
A 2021 report by Hunger Free America found that, from 2018 to 2020, an average 4,112,002 Texas residents lived in food-insecure homes, meaning they were unable to always afford an adequate supply of food, according to USDA data.
But what about the Bayou City?
Recently, the city of Houston launched a new initiative to battle food deserts in the area — 100 Pantries in 100 Days, led by Houston City Council Member Edward Pollard *District J) with the hopes of combating food insecurity in Houston. Houston’s food insecurity rate is 4% higher than the national average.
In plain numbers, that means more than 738,000 of Houston’s 2.3 million residents exist with no access to healthy food and 360,000 children are experiencing food insecurity. And the number are larger when you consider all of Harris County.
The We Are One effort may just be a piece in the machine assembled to facilitate better food access to families, but it’s a part that has tremendous meaning to the 600 families per week that received a large portion of their food from the initiative’s set-up in front of the Shrine of the Black Madonna’s sanctuary at 5309 MLK Blvd, Houston, TX 77021.
“It’s approximately 600 to 650 people we see each week because in these lines, in these cars, it’s multiple families, two and three families. We’re in the 77021 zip code. And when COVID took place, took hold in Houston, this area had the highest number of COVID patients. A lot of seniors in this area. A lot of children in this area with Peck Elementary on one end of the street and KIPP Liberation across the street. Those seniors and kids, those are the people who we really wanted to reach out and touch and support, just to let them know that ‘Hey, look, we care about you and we’re gonna be here until the problem ends.”
“This food is nothing short of life-saving,” said Emilo Vasquez (an alias used by a father of four who sat in the long line of vehicles awaiting his turn to receive food). “I’m a prideful man. It takes a lot to even come to ask for help. But I’m grateful these good people, angels, are here, willing to help us, complete strangers.”
Sylvia Reynolds, who arrived in the passenger seat of her neighbor Gladys Jones (alias), has been a frequent visitor to the We Are One food giveaway.
“These folk don’t shame you, don’t look down on you for your need, they just help, and do it with so much love,” Reynolds said. “I usually drive myself her, but I had to trick my neighbor Gladys to come. I told her my car wasn’t working, and if she could run be to the store, and that I had one quick stop to make. This was that stop. And after she cussed me out, she thanked me for getting her out of her pride so she too could get some food for her family.”
“I’m so thankful for this army of volunteers we have that are here each week, volunteering, giving back to our people,” said Andrews. “We have approximately 15 volunteers on any given Saturday, but we’re seeking more volunteers and more corporate sponsors to join in with us in our effort to provide this food.