Your Belly Is Full; What About Your Neighbor's?

The coming Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays are a time when we all enjoy thinking about the massive spreads of food we'll eat with our families, how we'll abandon all pretense of formality and wear stretch pants to the dinner table and how we'll enjoy leftovers while watching endless football games and parades. We even write odes to gravy.

But what we don't often think about is the hunger epidemic that's currently sweeping our city. According to the USDA, Texas has the second highest rate of food insecurity -- a lack of access to healthy food -- in the nation. And according to Houston Food Bank president and CEO Brian Greene, Houston's need for food in its food pantries has far outstripped its supply.

"Our total distribution is up 11 percent," Greene said in a phone interview. That means both the Houston Food Bank and its donors (both food companies and the Houston community) have increased the amount of food that's being distributed to needy persons. But it isn't enough. "Most of our pantries report that demand is up between 25 and 50 percent," Green continued. "It's not that the community hasn't been reaching out, it's just that the demand is even greater now."

Is there a correlation between Texas's high rate of food insecurity and the uneven supply and demand levels of food and donations? Greene doesn't think so. To him, it's more a matter of peoples' safety nets having been exhausted.

"Houston is a draw for people because we have so many opportunities here," he said. "So we're getting people from less fortunate areas and backgrounds who are trying to provide for their families."

As a result of that and the general economic downtown, many families are facing the fact that they've exhausted their savings and have reached the proverbial end of the rope. "When someone loses their job, the food pantry is the last thing on their mind at first," Greene pointed out. But as those resources dwindle, demand starts to sharply rise as the Houston Food Bank is already seeing this holiday season.,

The two best things that the public can do, Greene says, is to donate food and time. "Supermarkets have the Red Barrel Program," he points out, where carefully selected food items are already set aside in stapled paper sacks, ready to be purchased and donated directly to the Food Bank by customers. The program, started in 1986, has always been a successful means of getting the appropriate food items to the Food Bank in part because of its convenience for people who are interested in donating.

If you'd rather pull items from grocery store shelves or your own pantry, make sure to stick with what Greene calls "shelf-stable classics," like canned soup, vegetables, fruit and meat.

No canned items to donate? How about donating your time? The second most crucial necessity for the Food Bank: "Volunteering," Greene says.

"So much of what we do get donated requires work for it to be distributed," he said. Saturdays are booked up for now, "but we still need volunteers during the week and on Tuesday nights." Signing up for a shift is so easy, you can do it online. But after the holidays, Greene wants to remind people, the need for volunteers will still be there -- and those Saturdays won't be booked up anymore, either.

The good news is that the Houston Food Bank is set to move into a larger facility by summer 2011, which will allow them to take in more donations, organize more volunteers and thereby get more food to our needy neighbors. The Food Bank's ultimate goal is to see 120 million pounds of food distributed each year by 2018, but it can only get there with your cans and your time.

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