The United States is the land of opportunity and plenty, yet an estimated 38.3 million people, roughly 10.5 percent of all households, are food insecure, according to the US Department of Agriculture. In the four-county area served by the Trinity River Food Bank (Liberty, Walker, Trinity and San Jacinto counties), the poverty rates are higher than the national average, creating situations that have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Sept. 23, local food banks, community stakeholders and representatives of the Houston Food Bank gathered at the Cleveland Civic Center to learn about the findings of a Rural Hunger Needs Assessment study performed by Texas A&M University. The study was based on client surveys gathered by food distribution groups in the four-county region served by Trinity River Food Bank, which is the fourth partner distribution organization for the Houston Food Bank.
“Those of us who work in this service can say we have seen a difference in our clients [since the pandemic began] and it has been troublesome to see the change at times. I am optimistic today that together we can work to get everyone through these tough times,” said Christine Shippey, CEO of Trinity River Food Bank. “When you are dealing with people who are already in poverty and then a disaster comes along, it can be hard for them to regroup without the help of their community. So often we see people at an elevated state of stress from the mental stress, financial stress or the loss of a job.”
The study also revealed that other stressors included the loss of a family member, increased caregiving responsibilities, and a lack of access to health services, transportation and housing. The clients surveyed suggested that additional services were needed to help with prescription assistance, access to food stamps, mental health services, ESL and Spanish classes and healthy nutrition classes.
To address the root causes and downstream effects of food insecurity, the Houston Food Bank has created innovative programs like food scholarships for persons enrolled in economic educational programs and Food Prescriptions (Food Rx) to address the healthcare needs of food bank clients.
“The purpose of the food scholarship is to provide people enrolled in job training and educational programs with supplemental nutritious food so they have access to it while they are finishing these programs or working to get permanent housing, so the money they would have spent on food can be used for something else like child care,” said Esther Liew, Food For Change health partnerships manager for the Houston Food Bank.
“When we are able to reallocate some of those funds for another necessity of life, we are able to better achieve economic goals,” Liew said.
Persons enrolled in a food scholarship program can select up to 60 pounds of food from a unique food bank pantry called a Food for Change food market. Clients “shop” for their items of choice from a market set up inside the food bank, ensuring that their food items will be better put to use. Clients transition out when they complete their educational program.
In the Food Rx program, doctors and healthcare workers enroll patients based on their economic needs. The program may provide medicines needed to remain healthy.
“Our financial health and physical health go hand in hand. When we are able to stay employed, then we are better able to take care of our health. When we are healthy, we are better able to stay employed,” Liew said.
Of the four counties served by Trinity River Food Bank, only Huntsville currently has a Food for Change market but Shippey said that will soon change. Plans are underway to add a Food for Change location at the Cleveland food bank, located at 301 S. Fenner, by the end of October. Both locations will be by appointment only.
For more information on the services offered by the Trinity River Food Bank, go online to https://trinityriverfoodbank.org/