Even before COVID-19 swept over Houston this spring, the Houston Food Bank was already on the front lines, fighting a quiet epidemic of food insecurity. Pre-pandemic
, in a thriving economy, about two-thirds of Houston’s food pantry clients had jobs — jobs that still didn’t cover a family’s food, shelter and other basics. Now the food bank is feeding an unprecedented number of Houstonians from all walks of life. Unlike the pre-pandemic days, any new food bank clients sign up for social services online. They’re educated, have their own computers and are used to filling out documents digitally. But because food, like medical care, is one of the few human needs that can’t be shared virtually, Food Bank staffers continue to work person-to-person.
Lytrenda Moore is a food bank service “navigator,” who helps clients sign up for SNAP, or food stamps, along with social services in Harris County and the 11 surrounding counties. When HISD first closed down due to COVID-19, she helped at school food distribution sites. Now she’s preparing to work onsite again, at the food bank’s new mega-distribution events for the whole community, launched for the first time this week. Here, Moore explains what it’s like helping to feed her fellow Houstonians in a pandemic.
CK: Please tell a little bit about how you came to this work.
LM: I started in November of last year. I was previously in insurance. I went back to school for my master’s degree, and thought it would be good to start doing working in the community. I get such a high working with people and making a difference for them.
CK: What were your first in-person interactions during the pandemic?
LM: Pretty much everything we do is in person and hands on. We did hands-on at the HISD food distributions — naturally complying with what the mayor was saying, doing social distancing — until those stopped. We would meet people there and help them apply for food stamps, which can remain authorized for up to six months. For the SNAP applications, we now walk people through them by phone, help them to understand the questions they can’t answer right away. Then they have to mail their applications in.
We have heard back from many people — surprisingly enough given that most people are having such a hard time getting through to social services lines — that they are getting accepted in a few days.
CK: What is it like to distribute food or sign people up in person?
LM: The HISD distribution was intense, very much so. We had on the masks and gloves. People are driving up, we are asking people to stay in their cars, and just pop their trunks. We put the bags in the trunk. Oddly enough what we see at those sites is just sheer gratefulness, people thankful you are there.
Now the Houston Food Bank will be doing megadistribution for everyone in the community. So I’ll be back in the field. The first one, in partnership with the CY-HOPE nonprofit was on April 15. Given that it was the first time, most of our leadership went first: they went to see what kind of capacity we had. At the Houston Food Bank we are all hands on deck, so we are back on the front line again. And for those people that don’t know how to get ahold of us, we will be out there collecting information.
CK: How did the food bank usually distribute food?
LM: Normally, you could just go to a pantry at the food bank. Folks could come in — we preferred that they make an appointment — and shop, like in a grocery store, for about 30 minutes. The SNAP process is totally different: that’s the fancy word for food stamps. We help people to complete those applications: for every completed SNAP application, that constitutes 972 meals for one family. You can use those at a grocery store, and some places offer matching dollars.
CK: How many people are finding food through the food bank?
LM: We just looked at our numbers in my department. For fiscal year 2019, we completed about 14,008 applications for SNAP. That was the equivalent of 14,205,038 meals. So that was just for 2019. So far for this year through March 31 alone, we had already completed 10,857 applications. For the food distribution, our distribution is currently at 150 percent of what it usually is.
CK: It can be overwhelming to see the need for help. How can Houstonians back you up?
LM: We still are open to volunteers. Without them, we struggle to get the food out. Otherwise — we need donations and contributions — you’d be surprised how far they go. For every $10 you can donate, that constitutes 30 meals.
CK: What do you think will be different after the pandemic subsides?
LM: I think that what we have going on with food insecurity in this country is something we are going to have to look at a lot more closely. If you have two-thirds of the people coming to us with food insecurity working, many with one parent, imagine what that will look like when one parent doesn’t have a job.
Before the pandemic, we had a lot of one-parent families, or families with one parent who may be working and the other parent trying to better themselves by going to school full time, faced with a choice: Go to school to get a decent job — or get food on the table and pay the rent. Right now with the pandemic — I hate to say it — there’s not even a profile, there’s everybody; there is the executive that is no longer working; the mother no longer working, at home with two or three children; the family where both parents are laid off, and don’t have work.
CK: How does the food bank reach people who are isolated, or incapacitated?
LM: One of the things we like to do because we have so many nonprofit partners: on the website we have a link that says need help? Need assistance? Typically, under normal circumstances you can put in your zip code and find a pantry. Unfortunately many of those pantries don’t have the manpower or they are just not large enough to serve the need right now. Our advantage of being in the city, and the largest food bank, we have those additional resources. If we have to get a Lyft driver to send food, we can do it. Hopefully, incapacitated or isolated people can contact someone nearby and ask: can you get us to a local food bank or church? We will do what we can to the best of our ability.
CK: Have your loved ones voiced worry about your going back out in the front lines?
LM: Absolutely not. This is what I signed up for. Though we are not in the hospital, where people are definitely risking their lives, at the food bank we are first responders. We need to keep people nourished. There are kids doing school work, parents caring for families. We know that in the event of a disaster — a hurricane, a flood, none of us expected a pandemic — this is what we signed up for. If people can’t eat, we have an even bigger problem.
Kolker is the author of “The Immigrant Advantage: What We Can Learn About Newcomers to America About Health, Happiness And Hope,” newly released as a Penguin Random House audiobook.
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