In Houston, Quinn McGee is one of thousands of people who depend on their local food kitchen to survive the COVID-19 pandemic.
On pick-up days, they wake up early to be in front of long lines of cars at southwest Houston food kitchens.
“Something to look at,” said McGee, using their / them pronoun. “You look at all these cars and it feels, ‘wow’.”
McGee started getting food there in November. They have a partner and a 9 year old son. McGee said the family had gaps in pay because of unemployment and mental health leave and they had struggled to catch up.
Coming home with groceries was a sigh of relief.
“I can rest easy,” said McGee. They say they value fresh fruit and vegetables a lot – a healthy alternative to canned foods high in sodium.
Demand at food banks in Texas has more than doubled due to COVID-19. But in the new year, it’s likely less fresh food will make it to grocery bags like McGee’s thanks to a $ 2 million cut to a statewide grant program.
“That means the loss of 19 million pounds of produce,” said Celia Cole, CEO of Feeding Texas, an association of 21 state food banks. “It’s a result we won’t be able to get, it’s a product that’s likely to be wasted and it’s a product that could feed hungry Texans at a time of unprecedented food insecurity due to the pandemic.”
The Agricultural Product Surplus Grant Program pays for leftover produce from state farmers to be sent to food banks. Feeding Texas estimates the program served about 1.8 million families each month during the pandemic.
But the Texas Department of Agriculture is cutting 41% of grant funding to balance the statewide budget.
Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller said that after Governor Greg Abbott asked agencies to cut their budgets by 5%, his department didn’t have much area to cut.
Since the program cut, he’s asked Abbott to use the remaining $ 2 billion in state funds in the CARES Act to pay for grants, but he says he has yet to get a response.
“We can pay back the surplus grant money and keep the food bank intact,” Miller said. “They are in a very dangerous situation right now.”
Houston Food Bank President Brian Greene said the budget cuts meant his organization would receive 100 less tractor feeds.
“(The grant program) accounts for about 10% of our total distribution, and that’s pretty consistent with food banks in Texas,” said Greene. “This is about a quarter of the results we receive.”
Greene said if you consider these cuts together with unprecedented demand and uncertainty around federal USDA funding, food banks face a potential food gap.
Feeding Texas’ Celia Cole said the recent federal economic aid law would help in the long term, but local food banks are still anticipating a delay in aid for the first three months of 2021, which could mean they are about 29 million pounds short of food. each month.
“Almost every food bank projects a potential gap between demand in their community and their ability to meet that demand,” said Cole.
State programs can help pay for now, Cole added. He hopes that, when the state DPR meets in January, it will immediately reverse the budget cuts.
“I’m very optimistic,” said Cole.
The program has had bipartisan support for nearly 20 years, he said, and this is the year they should raise funds, not spend them.
“I think our legislators are responsible people,” said Cole. “I think they don’t want to see their constituents starve.”
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