Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A Line They'd Never Known

After Ike, thousands of Houston residents and evacuees found themselves without power or refrigeration - and so without food.

Within days, Texas officials made an emergency request to Washington to relax eligibility rules for the federal Food Stamps Program, our nation's front-line defense against hunger.

State offices were soon flooded with hungry applicants, and the system strained to accomodate the new rules and crowds.  Many were first-time applicants who never thought they would see such a day. "I got pride, but I got to swallow it," said Channelview resident Ron Schultz, who said he'd never applied for government assistance before. "I got kids. You got to do it." 

Schultz's stepdaughter, Monica Recio, echoed a common myth about food stamps. "I don't really like it because I think it's for people on the streets," she said, not realizing that most recipients are families with children. "But right now, we need it."

Many others who camped out overnight for help were frustrated by the program's stringent qualifications, which disqualified them even though they had lost their homes and livelihood. Galveston resident Catherine Fisher fumed, “Some of us have worked and paid taxes for 30 years and now we can’t get a bubblegum.”

Despite losing everything, families making more than 130% of the poverty line ($22,880 for a family of three) found they were still considered "too rich" for help. 

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Fighting Hunger with a 3-Legged Stool

In the last week, Texans from across the private, non-profit and public sectors have worked feverishly to staunch the flood of need left by Hurricane Ike, creating a 3-legged stool of support under hungry families.

Private: In the business community, grocers like Kroger and Albertson's have begun offering discount emergency boxes to encourage individual donations, while the Chrysler Foundation sent a $200,000 donation to the Houston Food Bank. 

Non-profit: Texas Food Banks continue to offer food as fast as they can, aided by high-profile appeals from Governor Rick PerrySenator John Cornyn and TX House Speaker Tom Craddick

Volunteers, from everyday Austinites to NFL players are pitching in at these charities, but the food banks are stretched to their limits as they attempt to fill the gaps left by government services. Houston Food Bank CEO Brian Greene reported serving 150,000 meals on Tuesday, with no end in sight. "I'm standing here on our loading dock this morning looking at a line of volunteer vehicles and wondering how long we're going to be able to keep them going," he said. Likewise, the Tarrant Area Food Bank is experiencing alarming shortfalls as a result of its relief efforts.

Public: Texas' public servants recognize the value of federal aid in a crisis, and last week received permission from USDA to offer emergency food stamps to disaster victims. Since then, food stamp offices statewide have been swamped by applicants, jamming the state's 211 network, creating lines hundreds deep in both Houston and Galveston, and generating 1000s of new applications from evacuees as far away as Jasper and Brownwood.

While each leg of the stool is finding itself stretched to breaking, thousands are now receiving help - a feat that no one sector could accomplish on its own.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Houston Food Bank "Overwhelmed"

While food banks across the state minister to the needs of the thousands who fled the Houston area last week, the Houston Food Bank itself is faced with an entire city of need.

Yesterday, CNN profiled the work of the food bank to feed the tens of thousands of local families stuck without refrigeration - efforts demanding 500,000 pounds of food each day.

The food bank is "utterly overwhelmed" said its president, Brian Greene. "It's a very similar situation that I saw following Katrina: when the caregivers themselves [are] victims, it just becomes difficult on a far larger scale than you would think."

Meanwhile, the State of Texas has moved to help by issuing energency food stamps to affected families as quickly as possible (12, 3). Worth an average of $93 per month, these benefits can be used to purchase groceries and hot / prepared food, which is usually forbidden by federal regulations.  

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Putting Ike in the Corner

The line of cars snaking out from the Capital Area Food Bank's parking lot this afternoon measured nearly a mile, as Ike refugees stuck in Central Texas continued to seek help feeding their families. Volunteers here have distributed approximately 2,500 emergency packages of food and toiletries so far.

Food banks across the state are doing likewise, but these charities are finding that they can't manage alone. Thankfully, help is coming from both the private and public sector to stem this tide of need.

In the business community, Southwest Airlines promised 10,500 pounds of food today, and HEB has already sent twelve tractor-trailers of its products to the Houston area.  

Most importantly, the state of Texas has now received permission from the federal government to distribute emergency food stamps to affected families (details). These benefits should last evacuees two months, and allow families to purchase both groceries and prepared foods - which are normally forbidden under food stamps law. 

High Prices = Low Nutrition

With food costs rising - and the price of healthy food rising fastest - low income Texans are running out of options to eat healthy. 

The Texas anti hunger community is fighting back with education and access. NBC 5 in Dallas recently profiled the work of the Tarrant Area Food Bank's Operation Frontline, which teaches families how to shop and eat healthy - and on the cheap. 

Meanwhile, Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples took a moment last week to encourage parents to sign their children up for school meals, our state's most abundant source of low-cost, regulated nutrition for growing minds.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Fighting Ike

Refugees at Small Middle School in AustinFood banks across Texas are gearing up today to feed what some commentators are calling the largest forced migration in Texas history. 

Refugees from Corpus Christi to Houston are traveling inland to escape Hurricane Ike, leaving behind precious resources and food.  

Food Banks are prepared to supply meals for up to 40,000 refugees in San Antonio, 20,000 in Austin, and 6,000 in Tyler, while the support of other food banks is being coordinated by the Texas Food Bank Network's presence at the emergency management center in Austin. 

September 10th is historically the peak of the hurricane season. For the sake of low-income Texans, let's hope Ike is the last of this year's disasters.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Social Media to Feed the Hungry?

For those who smugly ask themselves questions like "What do blogs really accomplish?" and "What is a Twitter, and why should I follow you on it?," here is a great example of the power of social media to affect change in the real world. 

Two weeks ago, Tyson Foods announced via its anti-hunger blog that they would donate 100 pounds of chicken for every blog comment they received that day. 

The web team at the Capital Area Food Bank sprang into action, reposting Tyson's challenge to their own blog and putting out a call for help via several employees' Twitter feeds. As tends to happen in social networks, friends told friends - who told friends - and by the end of the day Tyson announced the donation of an entire truckload of chicken to the food bank!

Watch a video of Food Bank CEO David Davenport talking about the donation. 

Monday, September 8, 2008

Hunger Doesn't Take a Vacation

As summer winds down, so do many programs that strive to feed low-income children when they have no access to nutritious school meals.

KETK in East Texas reports that the East Texas Food Bank's Summer Food Program is closing the books on a record year, in which it fed about 1,600 children per day. That's a 12% increase over the previous year, pointing to the increased demand schools can expect this fall of the USDA's free and reduced-price lunch program.

Luckily, Texas schools are helping families sign up for this federal program, according to the Austin American-Statesman. Unluckily, the skyrocketing price of food is ravaging the program's already strained budget, forcing schools to charge more and deliver less, according to congressional testimony heard earlier this summer. 

Proper nutrition has been proven time and again to increase test scores and lower bad behavior in school. When the price of food affects our ability to feed our children, what does that say about our priorities?

Thursday, September 4, 2008

85% Spike in Need Strips San Antonio Shelves Bare

It's been a rough summer in San Antonio for hungry families.

“In the news media, when there was a debate of whether there was a recession, I had no question. We saw it here all the time,” said Eric Cooper, executive director of the San Antonio Food Bank. “People are underemployed. They cannot afford the cost of food and their increased expenses.”

The food bank's fiscal year ending in June saw an 85% increase over the previous year, with only a 4% increase in donations, according to the San Antonio Express News. Likewise, 10,000 more San Antonians were forced to turn to food stamps this year to make ends meet.

The paper responded with an editorial calling on San Antonians to give, and reminding them that hunger doesn't take a vacation. 

“Even though we are not dealing with a natural disaster, we are dealing with a disaster nonetheless,” said Zuani Villarreal, the the food bank's director of development.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Hunger Relief Gets a Leg up on Gustav

The Texas anti-hunger community didn't have much of a vacation this weekend, as many agencies worked around the clock to prepare for refugees from Hurricane Gustav. 

Food Banks from across Texas rallied their communities to ship emergency "family boxes" to affected areas. The East Texas Food Bank alone delivered 26,016 pounds of food to 12 shelters over the course of the hurricane (12). 

Recognizing the central need for hunger relief during natural disasters, food banks were joined by students in Amarillo, GOP convention-watchers in Dallas, and even a Hurricane Katrina refugee to feed those fleeing the gulf. 

Now the real work begins! Just like Hurricane Dolly, first responders tend to draw down before the flood waters recede and the refugees can go home. Food banks are now looking for ways to provide meals - and especially snacks - to the hundreds of refugee families still stuck in Texas. 

Consider it part of your Hunger Action Month duties - if you have money or food to spare, consider donating to these hard-working orgs!

Update: As of September 4th, the East Texas Food Bank has distributed 34,765 pounds to Gustav refugees.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Hunger Action Month Begins!

September is Hunger Action Month in Texas and across the country - with an emphasis on "action!" Consider this a reminder that outraged blog posts and lonely RSS browsing and are no substitute for the real-world action needed to end hunger.

But what can you do from your desktop computer? More than you'd expect...
  1. Make it official with cardboard - Take a photo of yourself with a sign saying "Hunger is Unacceptable" and upload it here. See how many other Texans share the sentiment!
  2. Join the crowd - Sign up for regular advocacy alerts from the Texas Food Bank Network and Feeding America, the nation's network of food banks.
  3. Tweet up - Are you in Austin and on Twitter? (Is that a redundant question?) If so, sign up for a volunteer tweet-up at the Capital Area Food Bank Sept. 11th & 13th!
  4. Take the food stamps challenge - Are you in East Texas? Take the East Texas Food Bank's Food Stamps Challenge and gain an appreciation for the sacrifices that come with hunger.
  5. Not in Texas at all? Your loss. But you can find many more events in your home state here.