Houston Chronicle, June 26, 2008: Editorial: A quiet crisis

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Summertime, and the living is far from easy for hundreds of thousands of residents of Houston and Southeast Texas who don’t have enough to eat. In Houston’s 18-county vicinity, half a million individuals need assistance with food every year. On any given day an estimated 35,000 people go hungry in Houston.

The summer months are particularly hard on poor families with young children. In Texas, where about 2 million students receive free or reduced-price meals during the school year, that number drops steeply, to about 150,000, once school lets out. In the summer, free breakfast and lunch programs, where they exist at all, are sporadic. Several school districts offer meals to all children under 18 when summer school is in session. But in the case of the Houston Independent School District, for example, summer school ends July 2. That leaves almost two months before classes and meal service start again Aug. 27.

This year, with food costs soaring and gasoline in the stratosphere, the dog days of summer are shaping up to be more dire than in previous years. Brian Greene, president and CEO of the Houston Food Bank, says that while it is too early to compile data, anecdotal evidence from pantries and other agencies on new, first-time users of food assistance shows that there are more this year, and their needs are more acute.

Lower-income families are the hardest-hit. In Harris County, about 25 percent of children live at or below the poverty line, which means their families have insufficient income to meet their basic needs. And poorer families spend relatively more of their income on food, which often results in having to choose among necessities. According to 2006 statistics compiled by the Food Bank, 43 percent of hungry families in the 18-county Houston area report having to choose between food and rent; 33 percent had to choose between food and medical care; 50 percent had to decide between food and utilities.

This summer, the costs of basics on which low-income people rely such as grains, milk, eggs and cheese rose by double digits. People on food stamps are hit harder by rapid food cost increases because adjustments for inflation are only made every October.

For families who find themselves in need of help, Greene suggests that they contact the Houston Food Bank, or call 211 for general help with social services. “And sign up for food stamps,” he advises those who are eligible. In Texas, only 60 percent of those eligible are enrolled, less than the national average. In Harris County only 40 percent are enrolled. Increasing that enrollment would not only benefit the individuals and families served, it would stimulate the economy, benefiting farmers, grocers and small businesses.

For those wishing to help, Greene said, monetary offerings are always welcome, but volunteers are the biggest need. Most food is donated, and much of it needs a lot of work before it can be distributed. When there aren’t enough volunteers, donations have to be turned down. And as volunteers age, they are not being replaced at the same rate by younger ones.

Hunger in a big city is not news. It compels few headlines. But it’s a constant companion to thousands of Houstonians, every day of the year. For those lucky enough not to have to think about where their next meal is coming from, it’s worth a though

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