The Houston Food Bank is looking for more volunteers as it handles increased food distribution during COVID-19. (Courtesy Houston Food Bank)
Nicole Lander has served as the Houston Food Bank’s chief impact officer for three years, overseeing food resourcing, partnerships and programs. She is also a registered dietician with more than a decade of experience managing food service operations and educating individuals about proper health and nutrition.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Learn more at www.houstonfoodbank.org.
How would you describe the issues of food insecurity in the Greater Houston area prior to the COVID-19 pandemic?
Prior to the pandemic, about 1 in 5 children, specifically, lived in a food-insecure household in our service area. The latest estimates show that number is 1 in 4, so that shows food insecurity has definitely gone up. Possibly with evictions and some other financial measurements, that could even be 1 in 3.
What we know is food insecurity was already a major issue for households with children, and even more so now that has gone up and been exacerbated with unemployment. About 1.1 million people in our total service area are categorized as food-insecure, and we serve about 800,000 families in an average year. So, there was already opportunity for us to serve more households, but that number has doubled since COVID-19 began.
Can you speak to the importance of having well-balanced, nutritious meals? What are some potential negative effects that play out when those needs are not being met?
Food insecurity is part of the social determinants of health, and it has a direct relationship into overall chronic disease management. About 40% of the households we serve have Type 2 diabetes or heart disease, and that’s directly related to poor diet.
As a food bank, our effort over the last five years has been to increase our perishable food distribution, namely produce. Nutritious food output is what our organization counts, so if we get a cake or chips, we don’t count that poundage. This way, our partners prioritize getting nutritious food out to people.
COVID-19 definitely showed most people weren’t cooking at home—it’s so much easier to drive through and grab something at a low amount of money for a household that’s already struggling than to go to the store and buy a complete meal with fruits, veggies and grains.
Definitely in adults, obesity is a direct correlation to food insecurity. That’s because people are choosing to consume high-calorie, high-fat items so that they feel satiated. The infrequency of meals is also a reason for that. When you’re not sure where your next meal is coming from, you choose these unhealthy items and less often, which causes your body to store fat.
People are driven to make food choices by their income, and so our role as an organization is to make sure we’re offering nutritious food to households so they no longer have to make that tradeoff. Low-cost food has saturated fat and things that are going to make their health worse. It’s extremely important to have a well-rounded diet, and that does not mean you’re low-carb or keto; it just means that you’re eating whole foods.
In addition to poor health, what are some implications of food insecurity for children?
Not only do children not do as well in school—which is driven by lower attendance and poor health—they are also more likely to be bullied and more likely to have suicidal thoughts. Some of those things are not as widely talked about, and they’re a key aspect of child hunger.
That’s tied to poor development because of poor nutrition and a lack of stability and support from the adults in the household. Children feel less nurtured when they’re hungry—specifically in our culture where food is at the center of celebration. When you see everyone eating cookies and cakes and you don’t have those things, you’re more likely to feel isolated.
What are some systemic issues that might keep families in the cycle of poverty and food insecurity?
Loss of wages and unemployment is one reason. When the unemployment index goes up because the economy shuts down further, our need goes up. Then when people are unhoused due to evictions, we definitely know that food insecurity is exacerbated.
To what extent has the food bank seen an increase in demand during the pandemic, and do you have projections of that need decreasing anytime soon?
During a typical day at the food bank prior to COVID-19, we distributed about 400,000 pounds of food, and right now we’re doing 1 million pounds a day. We don’t anticipate a downturn in output until the spring, and that’s depending on how the economy does with bringing people back to work.
What have been the biggest challenges the Houston Food Bank has faced in meeting this increased demand for services?
Our greatest challenge has been the reduction of volunteers in our building. Because of COVID-19, we’ve decreased the capacity. Those people used to help us build boxes and bags to distribute out, and so we’ve really had to lean on alternative sources—hiring additional staff, working with the National Guard and nonprofits to help us build back up our capacity.
For families who might be facing food insecurity for the first time, what might the process of navigating resources look like?
The easiest thing for someone who’s not familiar with this world is reaching out through 2-1-1, and they will walk them through that process. The food bank has our own hotline to call where we can refer you to our [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] education personnel. Additionally, if you use our website and put in your ZIP code, it will show you where the closest food pantry is.
Is there anything in particular you hope to see in the upcoming Legislature to help fill gaps for families dealing with food insecurity?
We get funding through the Texas government to provide produce, which helps the farmers get paid for produce they’re not able to sell to the market and gives us the opportunity to rescue that food. Right now, we know that funding is up to be cut, and we’d like to see that budget increased—not cut.
The other thing is making sure we don’t have additional qualifications than what the [U.S. Department of Agriculture] requires for people to be eligible for SNAP. Texas has a very strict work requirement for SNAP, and we’d like to see those removed.