Since mid-April, the National Guard has been crucial to the success of the Houston Food Bank, helping to distribute more than 89 million pounds of food and products after the number of volunteers dropped and demand skyrocketed during the pandemic.
Next week, it’s all over.
After the farewell ceremony on Friday, more than 200 members of the National Guard will begin to be removed from their role in the country’s largest food bank. Next Wednesday, the latter is expected to depart, and the hands that have helped organizations to protect food insecurity will disappear, according to Brian Greene, president and CEO of the Houston Food Bank.
“We only have a lot to make up for,” Greene said from the guard’s departure. Greene does not expect additional deployment from the National Guard in the coming months.
However, the demand for food is still extraordinary – as much as 150 percent higher than usual. Based on these figures, the food bank estimates that around 2.75 million people are not safe for food in their service area. In June, the organization saw a 171 percent increase in households served per week – reaching nearly 160,000 – from last year, with distribution often exceeding 1 million pounds per day, according to internal food bank data.
Sorting and distributing all food requires significant labor.
“Labor has become a problem,” Greene said. “Labor is a bigger problem now.”
With a mandate to keep social distance and COVID-19 surges in Houston, food banks and other partner organizations have struggled to meet the demand for labor, relying on smaller shifts and the National Guard.
Usually able to handle up to 1,000 volunteers per shift, they are now down to a maximum of 150 volunteers per shift, not including the National Guard. The total amount has been much lower during the pandemic, said Jermaine Harmon, director of voluntary services for Houston Food Bank. With fewer corporate groups coming to serve and Houston residents wary of transmission, organizations don’t always fill in even this shift reduction.
Recently, the number of volunteers dropped again, and Harmon thinks it’s because of the surge in COVID-19.
Some administrators stated that the National Guard was very important during this time, and Harmon suggested they often tripled or quadrupled the results of normal volunteers. “These people aren’t kidding,” said Paula Murphy, public relations officer for the Houston Food Bank. “There’s no way we can do this without their help.”
Second Lieutenant Randy Trevino oversaw 55 National Guard troops deployed here. “I don’t know how many times I’ve been told ‘God bless you, thank you for helping,'” Trevino said. Troops, some of whom left family and work, were initially deployed through May, but Greene still needed their help and the spread continued to expand.
The Montgomery Food Bank and Galveston County also benefit from the National Guard. Faith Lane, director of programming at Montgomery County Food Bank, said she felt very fortunate to get National Guard assistance for the past 11 weeks. But next week is the last one, and Lane is working hard to secure volunteers.
“The numbers can be challenging with people who don’t want to get out too fast,” Lane said.
To meet the devastating demand and allow more volunteers to work, Houston Food Bank recently opened another warehouse on Market Street, and will have a third warehouse ready for volunteers in early August. Each can handle 30 additional volunteers per shift.
Despite their fears, Houston residents still appear to help. Some temporary workers are employed through the YMCA or Harris County programs, and others just want to help.
“This is better than staying at home and worried,” said Marianne Hembree, 66, who has retired but started volunteering at the Houston Food Bank at the start of the pandemic. “When you think about other people, it will take your mind off your own problems.”
After he was laid off earlier this year, Lorenzo Snow, 47, got a job at a food bank through the YMCA. But he found much joy in helping those in need even when he had no time, Snow came to serve.
The lack of volunteers also impacts other Houston aid organizations.
The Park Department’s and Houston Department’s Summer Food Service Program for school-age children has lost at least 120 food distribution locations since last summer, some due to staffing problems. Most of these independent sites are apartment complexes and churches that rely on volunteers to function, according to Rummeka Allen, administrative coordinator for the Summer Food Service Program. Some church sites are managed by senior citizens, are now too vulnerable to volunteer, and many apartment staff offices are closed due to a pandemic.
When schools become virtual and after school activities stop in March, the city extends its Summer Food Program from the usual three months to almost five and a half. Allen said that after a drastic spike in March and April, they had seen a slight decrease in demand, which he attributed to families who had more time to plan the summer. Sometimes, the site cannot fulfill the request, and must direct the children to another location.
Uncertainty over the next few months – school schedules, hurricanes and economic recession – make these programs uncertain in the future. Allen wasn’t sure what to expect when school started. “Everything became minute by minute,” Allen said. “We are waiting to know how the school will continue and what it looks like.”
At the Houston Food Bank, they were preparing for the hurricane season, and the National Guard had helped prepare a special aid box before they left.
“The food bank knows how to deal with Category 5 storms,” said Murphy, the organization’s publicist. “This is something you’ve never seen.”
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