Access to fresh food should be a given, not a privilege


The lobby of the government office where I waited with my children to receive food aid was austere, with only hard plastic chairs and a television showing cartoons. Several women held strollers and bottles as their children fussed.

I enrolled my adoptive children in the Women’s, Infants, and Children’s Food Program, or WIC, because I was a new adoptive parent and wanted them to have access to all the benefits available to them.

The wait was brutal, up to four hours at times, just to qualify for a $30 voucher to spend on a limited list of food items that only allowed $9 worth of fruit and vegetables per child. Back then, $9 equaled a pint of strawberries, a bag of apples, and a bag of tangerines that my kids love; all probably consumed within a week.

Every gesture helped me, however, as I navigated a new life as a single mother of two.

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But I wondered if the other women, like me, had dropped out of work and taken their children out of school to attend the quarterly appointment needed to receive their food stamps. I had packed picture books and raisins to fill the free time, but by the second hour it was impossible for the kids to sit down and sit still. It was hard for me too.

I couldn’t understand why the wait was always so long, even when there were few families waiting to be seen. And I wondered why the food benefits lack sufficient healthy options.

Access to food – healthy eating – is a huge and complex issue in a country that throws away more than 100 billion pounds of food each year, according to Feeding America, a national hunger relief organization. The Houston Food Bank, the nation’s largest, reports that one million people in Texas are considered food insecure, meaning they don’t have consistent access to healthy food.

Local efforts are helping, but the pandemic has set things back.

“Before the pandemic, we were reducing the number of households reporting food insecurity, with about 10% of U.S. households,” said Dr. Shreela Sharma, professor of epidemiology at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center and co-founder, with Lisa Helfman, of Brighter bites, a non-profit organization that provides fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as nutrition education, to underserved communities. Helfman is Houston’s public affairs director for HEB, one of Brighter Bites’ top donors.

With the pandemic and subsequent financial crisis, food insecurity has doubled, and the percentage in Texas is now 35 to 40 percent of households reporting food insecurity, Sharma said.

“We need to do more than just have a handout. When someone has unmet basic needs for food, shelter and water, it translates to greater financial instability,” she said.

Brighter Bites recently received a $1.5 million grant from the Walmart Foundation to expand its programs, which include educating families on how to incorporate fresh fruits and vegetables into their diets.

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“There are so many layers that make it as difficult as possible for families to get the healthy foods they need. All the dots must be connected,” Sharma said.

Another group making a difference to Houston’s food insecurity is Lucille’s 1913, a nonprofit created by Chef Chris Williams, owner of Restaurant Lucille. In 2020, he founded the organization to provide meals to local frontline workers. He then partnered with World Central Kitchen, which provides meals during natural disasters, to feed Houston’s senior community.

The Kinder Foundation recently donated $1.3 million to the organization, which served 400,000 meals to residents of Sunnyside, Fifth Ward, Third Ward, Acres Homes and other Houston communities.

“We want to bring dignity to this space,” Williams said. “A lot of meal programs are just about food. We are in a unique position as leaders to speak to the palace.

Lucille’s 1913 has deep roots for Williams. He honors his great-grandmother, culinary pioneer Lucille B. Smith; 1913 signifies the year she started her restaurant business in Fort Worth. It also marks the 50th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Every day, Williams’ team serves about 1,200 meals, which are prepared in a kitchen at the former Power Center in southwest Houston. Williams said her organization recently teamed up with two other nonprofits, including the Imani School, to purchase the building, with a plan to create a huge garden on the six acres behind the facility.

“It’s a sad reality that the need for fresh food is endless,” he said.

Another reality is that some 23.5 million Americans live in food deserts, areas where it is difficult to access healthy and affordable food. According to the US Department of Agriculture, about half of the people who live in food deserts also have low incomes, making it that much harder to travel or get food delivered.

It is inevitable that food insecurity leads to more nutrition-related health problems, such as diabetes.

By the time the pandemic hit, I had withdrawn from the WIC program. But so many families do not have this privilege. Adding to the burden, grocery stores that accept vouchers are usually not found in the low-income communities in which these families live.

Access to fresh, healthy food shouldn’t be a privilege. It should be a given.

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