Food insecurity is nothing new for many Houstonians: According to the Houston Food Bank, as many as 18 percent of households and 25 percent of children have little to no access to fresh and nutritious food sources. Within the one southwest neighborhood of Sunnyside, one of Houston’s most pronounced food deserts, residents have been “living off of gas station shopping for years,” said resident Kendra Jones.
That was before Hurricane Harvey struck Houston on August 25. One month later, a drive through town reveals the devastation left behind. At least 200,000 homes and 500,000 cars have been destroyed or damaged, and grocery stores and shopping centers are boarded up, their parking lots filled not with cars, but with the flood-ravaged remnants of food shelves and display cabinets.
While residents are dealing with the physical destruction of the storm, they are also battling unseen side effects of Harvey, including E. coli bacteria and dangerous levels of contamination of lead, arsenic and other heavy metals found in the homes of residents and floodwaters surrounding them.
Meanwhile, the sidewalks outside of metro area food pantries are filled with people—lines wrapping around the block—as hungry residents wait for momentary relief from growling stomachs. Staying fed poses an ongoing problem in the wake of such devastation, but that is a challenge the #HoustonStrong community is meeting head on.
Although people were hit in different ways, with some enduring flooded fields and others facing empty pantries, a sprawling network of food organizations—including Houston’s well-established anti-hunger groups, urban and regional farmers, and ad hoc post-hurricane groups—is connecting farmers and residents to shared resources.
A Community Comes Together
Plant It Forward Farms (PIFF), a Houston-area nonprofit that supports refugee farmers, lost 60 percent of its crops and still donated more than 100 pounds of okra that helped feed hundreds left hungry after Harvey. “We had the food, and people needed help,” said PIFF farmer Sarment Louamba when asked about the donation.
Community gardening organizations such as Urban Harvest, a nonprofit that offers garden education programs and operates two farmers’ markets in Houston, are finding different ways to chip in. The organization set up a “Buy to Donate” program, where customers can purchase extra produce from local farmers and give the surplus to Urban Harvest, which then donates everything to the Midtown Kitchen Collective.
“The drive is a great way to support both our farmers and those affected [by Hurricane Harvey],” said Tyler Horne, Urban Harvest’s farmers’ market manager. “The people here care about the farmers, and the farmers care about them. It’s part of what makes our markets so great.”
So far, 1,200 pounds of produce have been collected through the market’s initiative, and donations are still coming in.
Temporary relief groups have also materialized, such as the coalition of chefs and caterers who call themselves I Have Food, I Need Food. The group began taking donations and preparing nutritious meals almost immediately after Harvey struck. According to the group’s website, they served over 250,000 meals in the weeks immediately following the storm.
Food Security Remains a Challenge
With the storm’s damage still visible, Houston residents are aware of empty stomachs and are making active efforts to ensure everyone has a plate at the table.
The people at Hope Farms, a community farm located in the Sunnyside neighborhood, have been working to deliver fresh fruits and vegetables to Houston’s food deserts since well before Harvey struck. In April 2017, Hope Farms debuted its Rolling Green Market, a refrigerated van that delivers farm-grown produce to residents in areas without access to healthy and nutritious food.
The farm also hosts a Saturday market that heavily discounts its food and accepts food stamps. “For many of our community members, this the first time they have had any kind of consistent access to good-quality food,” explained Justin Myers, Hope Farm’s agriculture expert.
“Before Hope Farms came around, I would have to take a bus two hours to get to a farmers’ market,” said Kendra Jones. “Try doing that with kids? Forget it.”
Services like the Rolling Green Market have always been important, but now with so many residents losing cars and jobs in the wake of Harvey, they are even more crucial.
Food pantries throughout Houston have experienced similar absences of fruits and vegetable to offer those in need. “What we have is better than nothing,” Lorrie Bunch explained while showing the pantry stores she coordinates at Bayshore Baptist Church. “But it’s hard to tell people to survive on canned beans and packaged crackers. Fresh vegetables make such a big difference in health and energy levels.”
As the coverage of Houston’s long recovery from Harvey continues, locals like Jones are hoping “it helps folks realize the importance of food access.” But that hope—and help—can be challenging to hold on to: As life returns to normal, those in areas where floodwaters have receded and with dry floors are not as focused on the people left stranded. Bunch explained that Houston’s food pantries and food banks are already “experiencing a decline in donations, as people get back to their regular lives.”
Meanwhile, the Houston farming and garden community is looking to the future. As part of Hope Farms’ mission to bring food security to Houston’s many food deserts, they are busy providing future farmers with skills and support needed to help sustain their communities. Similarly, Plant It Forward Farms is welcoming its newest class of farmers, who will be growing crops and running farm stands by next fall. The gaps in food security will not be fixed overnight, but Houston is certainly planting the seeds to help close them.
Top photo: Plant it Forward Farms (Photo credit: Eric Kayne).