Feeding Houston’s Hungry: One Million Pounds a Day

01 November 2020

The line of cars waiting to receive boxes of food from the Houston Food Bank can be up to a kilometer long.

Based in the state of Texas, the organization is the country's largest food bank. It is offering huge amounts of food to workers who have lost their jobs because of the coronavirus crisis, as well as other people in need.

Herman Henton, an unemployed construction worker, is among those receiving food. His wife works at a home improvement store. She is now the only person in their family of five who has a job. The family tried to get food stamps. But they were told they could only have $25 of federal food assistance each month.

"As a man, as a father, as a provider, I felt at a low point. I felt low," Henton said. He was waiting in his car near West Houston Assistance Ministries, which gets food from the Houston Food Bank for its care packages.

Volunteer Sharely Gomez marks the windshield after taking information from clients in their cars as they wait in line in before the food distribution begins at the West Houston Assistance Ministries Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020, in Houston. (AP Photo/Michael
Volunteer Sharely Gomez marks the windshield after taking information from clients in their cars as they wait in line in before the food distribution begins at the West Houston Assistance Ministries Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020, in Houston. (AP Photo/Michael

Food provided by the Houston Food Bank now averages about 800,000 pounds each day. Two pounds is a little less than one kilogram. The organization reached the one-million-pound mark for the first time in the spring, a level it still sometimes reaches.

Before the coronavirus crisis, the group's average daily distribution was 450,000 pounds. That information comes from Brian Greene, president of the Houston Food Bank.

Then, workers in Houston and millions around the country suddenly lost work and were forced to depend on the free food.

"It had that feeling of a disaster, like the hurricanes," Greene said. It was shocking how the lines grew so quickly, he added.

Houston is known as one of America's most ethnically and racially diverse cities. But it soon became known for something else: being in serious need. The food bank hurried to gather enough milk, bread, vegetables and meat from a lot of places to feed the hungry.

Many people in Houston and around the country do not make a livable wage. Their money is gone by the time they get their next paycheck. Twenty-two million people across the country lost jobs when the coronavirus first hit. Close to 11 million of those jobs have not yet been restored.

Forty percent of American families have less than $400 to pay for unexpected costs, Greene said. The information comes from a study by the U.S. Federal Reserve System. "So, when this crisis hit, the number of families who needed assistance was immediate and very large," Greene said.

After Henton lost his job, he and his wife ate one meal each day so that their three children could eat all three meals.

His family is one of around 126,500 area families that the Houston Food Bank has helped with boxes of food every week since March. Workers and volunteers separate, load and pack the food onto trucks. The trucks then bring the loads to distribution centers around the city and towns outside the city.

Nationally, free food distribution has risen sharply and continues to stay high, noted Katie Fitzgerald. She heads the organization Feeding America, which runs a national network of 200 food banks.

Her group increased the amount of food it distributes to two billion pounds from April through June. During the January-March period, it distributed 1.3 billion pounds.

The federal government has helped meet the demand with programs such as Farmers to Families. The program buys farm goods such as vegetables, meat and diary that had been produced for restaurants that are now closed. It gives these goods to food banks and the distribution groups they work with.

But the money for the U.S. Agriculture Department's Farmers to Families program runs out at the end of October.

Individual food banks also get 20 percent to 40 percent of food they distribute from other government programs. That includes one that helps farmers who were hurt by foreign tariffs. The government buys their vegetables and meats and makes sure that producers get paid and the food does not go to waste. That program is funded so far through 2020.

The food banks get the rest of what they distribute from food markets or farmer donations or buy it with donated money.

Fitzgerald said the nation's food banks have enough food to meet U.S. demand -- for now. But she said distributors "are concerned about the future" as winter nears.

I'm Alice Bryant.

The Associated Press reported this story. Alice Bryant adapted it for Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.


Words in This Story

food stamps – n. federal aid program that helps low-income Americans add to their grocery budgets

care package – n. a package of useful or enjoyable items sent or given as a gift to someone

pound – n. a unit of weight that is equal 0.45 kilograms

distribution – n. the act of giving or delivering something to people

hurricane - n. an extremely large, powerful, and destructive storm with very strong winds that occurs especially in the western part of the Atlantic Ocean

diverse – adj. made up of people or things that are different from each other

tariff – n. a tax on goods coming into or leaving a country