Amid a hunger crisis, Houston struggles to keep food on people’s tables

In a city still recovering from 2017's Hurricane Harvey, community food banks and restaurants rally to feed those in need.

Photograph by Graham Dickie, National Geographic
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Kimberline Rivas and Lawrence Walker, two members of Lucille’s 1913’s kitchen staff, prepare meals to be distributed for free across Houston. Since March, Lucille’s, a popular local restaurant, has been making hundreds of meals a day for the needy.

Photograph by Graham Dickie, National Geographic

Celebrity chef David Chang grabbed his face nervously as he pondered the final question on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. He didn’t know the answer, but he needed to figure it out fast: A million dollars of aid for hungry families was on the line.

“As much as I want to walk away, and the embarrassment I will have for the rest of my life for getting it wrong, it means more to me to get this right, to put the spotlight on the industry in need,” Chang said. “The way things are, things are pretty bad.”

Chang had pledged his winnings to Southern Smoke Foundation, a Houston non-profit helping hospitality workers in need. He knew a million dollars would go a long way for restaurant employees who had lost their jobs because of the pandemic.

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People wait in their cars at NRG Stadium to receive goods from the Houston Food Bank. The food bank has been giving out more than a million pounds of food a day, more than twice its usual volume. The cars drive past several tents, each one with a separate set of foods, from apples to frozen milk.

Houston currently leads Texas in both COVID-19 infections and fatalities, with more than 200,000 cases and 3,000 deaths. The city has also felt the sharp economic decline the pandemic has caused throughout the country. More than 173,000 Houstonians have lost their jobs, with those working in restaurants and bars particularly hard hit. One in five people in Houston recently reported going hungry, and food banks and pantries have seen demand skyrocket. (One in six Americans could go hungry in 2020 as pandemic persists.)

After using his phone-a-friend lifeline, Chang answered correctly and became the first celebrity in the game show’s 20-year history to win $1 million.

“It was excruciating,” says Chang’s lifeline, Mina Kimes, an ESPN senior writer and analyst. “I was aware of the cause that he was playing for, which is just terrific. I felt the stress of not wanting to let either him or the charity down.”

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Chris Williams inside Lucille’s, the restaurant he founded in memory of his great-grandmother, who was a chef in Dallas. She served her segregated community and cooked for Black icons like boxer Joe Louis and Martin Luther King, Jr.

It wasn’t the first time Chang had raised money for Southern Smoke, founded by his friend Chris Shepperd. In 2017, after Hurricane Harvey destroyed or damaged hundreds of thousands of homes in Houston, he helped raise $500,000 to help 139 families rebuild their lives by cooking at the organization’s annual barbecue.

Now, faced with a crisis even greater than the hurricane, Southern Smoke and other organizations across the city are rallying to help the hundreds of thousands of jobless people who are struggling to feed their families.

Great-grandmother’s legacy

In March, when the U.S. first shut down because of the pandemic, Chris Williams, CEO and executive chef of Lucille’s, an iconic, Black-owned Houston restaurant, thought about how he could help. He set up a non-profit, Lucille’s 1913, and started making meals for the city’s first responders working the night shift.

"We gave out over 3,000 meals in the first month of the shutdown, and we specifically went after the night shift, since other restaurants donate breakfast or lunch shifts,” he says. “The night shift usually gets nothing.”

Williams then turned his attention to the elderly community, and began providing meals to nursing homes in the predominantly Black neighborhoods of the Third Ward, Fifth Ward, and Sunnyside so that these underserved populations didn’t have to put themselves at risk.

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Volunteers give out food at the Power Center at a food drive run by Windsor Village United Methodist Church and the Houston Food Bank.

"When we thought about the real risks with COVID, we knew who it was impacting the most, which was elderly people,” Williams says. “They're in assisted living communities, already in impoverished neighborhoods, and now they have no access to their family. They go exactly where they don't need to be, which is in a grocery store, just to cook themselves an adequate meal.”

The pandemic is not the first time Williams has pitched in to feed the hungry. After Hurricane Harvey, he and his chefs went to the convention center where the displaced were being housed and started cooking.

“Our doors were open, but nobody could get to them because they didn't want to swim to a restaurant,” he says. “We made a beeline to the George R. Brown Convention Center, where everybody was housed. We provided over 6,000 meals during Harvey.”

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Menda de la Cruz, left, and Isabelita Gonzalez pick up food from the Houston Food Bank at NRG Stadium. The pair, who moved to the U.S. from the Philippines 20 years ago, said they plan to mail some of the goods to their families in Manila.

Since March, Williams and his team has donated more than 100,000 meals to first responders and senior citizens across the Houston area. Williams also started a pop-up bar program that allows restaurant and bar owners who have closed their doors an opportunity to serve drinks on his patio area. For Christmas, Lucille’s 1913 will give out 5,000 meals, their largest distribution in a single day.

Williams feels that giving back to the community is in his family’s DNA, a part of the legacy of his great-grandmother, Lucille, for whom the restaurant is named. A chef, Lucille served her segregated community in Dallas, made meals for Black pioneers like Martin Luther King, Jr. and boxing legend Joe Louis, and sent fruitcakes to soldiers in Vietnam, for which she received a thank you from President Lyndon B. Johnson.

“She used her skills to help people in need in their community. Back then before desegregation, the close-knit community meant everything and depended on one another,” Williams says. “When you found somebody that was in need, you did what you could to help them out. I honor her, her intentions, and her purpose when I help someone else.” (Even before the pandemic, people were still malnourished in the U.S. Here's why.)

Williams followed in Lucille’s footsteps when he hosted a meal in June for Joe Biden and George Floyd’s family. Biden gave Williams the vice presidential challenge coin, a unique token of appreciation for his non-profit work and continuing his great-grandmother’s legacy.

“It was one of the honors of my life to be the host for that historic meeting,” says Williams. “[Biden] told me, ‘I'm really impressed by your story, by what your great-grandmother did, and by the work that you're doing. I don't give this to everybody. I save this for war heroes.’”

A million pounds of food

On a warm October morning, hundreds of cars waited in a long line that snaked out of the parking lot at NRG Stadium, home of the Houston Texans. The cars contained families and individuals, children and the elderly, all waiting for a bag of food from the Houston Food Bank to tide them over.

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Volunteers at the Houston Food Bank’s headquarters work in an assembly line to ready food and drink for distribution.

Among them were Isabelita Gonzalez and Menda de la Cruz, who had lost their jobs during the pandemic. The two moved to Houston from the Philippines 20 years ago, and their families in both the U.S. and in Manila were depending on them.

"We're not working. We all need food. I have three grandchildren, a little one, and we send food to the Philippines,” Gonzalez says. “The foods that do not expire quickly, we are trying to get some food to help other people, not just us. They don't have a job in the Philippines, they are locked down and they cannot even go to the store.”

A few cars down, a group of women had driven 20 miles from an elderly community in Deer Park to pick up food to supplement what they could afford on their small fixed income. Janice, the driver, says they share meals with their neighbors.

"When you're on low income, it really helps a lot. I share with my kids and we have elderly people in our neighborhood, so we share with them too, because they're all having problems too, you know, with low incomes."

Once the distribution began, the cars drove past several tents, each with a different type of food, from poultry to fruits and vegetables. (Queens, New York, one of the first COVID-19 epicenters, faces a new crisis: hunger.)

Since March, the Houston Food Bank has seen demand double. For five months, they distributed over a million pounds of food a day, six days a week.

"We were well over double volume. That's crazy,” says Houston Food Bank president and CEO Brian Greene. “Now it's more like 800,000 pounds, which is like 20 tractor-trailer loads worth of food per day, six days a week. The number of families we're seeing is way more than normal."

Despite the increase in demand, the number of volunteers at the food bank has been cut from 1,000 to just 150 due to COVID-19 restrictions. To cope with the reduced manpower, the Houston Food Bank has partnered with the YMCA and other organizations to create more distribution sites, started drive-through locations, and worked with companies like Amazon to create a food delivery system.

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Chris Williams, left, and Raquel Seymone deliver meals across Houston for Williams’ non-profit, Lucille’s 1913. He and his team have donated more than 100,000 meals to first responders and seniors since the start of the pandemic.

Green ran the New Orleans Food Bank when Hurricane Katrina struck Louisiana and he lived through Hurricane Harvey in Houston, but he says the pandemic has been an even more challenging crisis.

"This is much, much harder,” he says. “Because of the social distancing, the work itself is much harder to do. But the part that is very different is it doesn't go away. Normally after a hurricane, we have a few weeks of very intense need, which is similar to what we see now. The difference is it hasn't gone away. It just goes on and on and on.”

Community fridges have also popped up around the city to give people a place to donate and pick up food for free. Nnenna Ochuru and Jonay Hulin, owners of the thrift shop Exchange to Change, jumped at the opportunity to house the city’s first fridge, and they’ve already seen the difference it can make for the community.

“A lady came, her nephew had got killed, and she had all five of his kids and she didn't know what she was going to do the next day. But it just happened to be the day after they put the fridge up,” Hulin says.

They’ve also started a community garden to grow fruit and vegetables for the hungry. “We don't have green thumbs, but we know someone who does and she's started planting food,” Hulin says. “If you can't go to the grocery store, we'll have a supply.” (Urban farming is growing a greener future.)

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Bobby Jean Dickerson, 73, occasionally stays with his son but mostly lives without a home and subsists on donations from organizations like the Emergency Aid Coalition.

In October, Houston mayor Sylvester Turner visited the NRG Stadium parking lot during a drive-through food distribution. After handing out meals to the needy, he praised the community for pulling together and harnessing the same ethos that had helped Houston through the hurricane.

"What I can say is that spirit of togetherness that existed after Harvey has been exemplified now in 2020. This is a highly resilient community and we band together when we need to. We don't wait on the cavalry to come save us. We become the cavalry."