Although the Cy-Fair Helping Hands food pantry doesn’t open until 9:30 a.m., Executive Director Janet Ryan said cars start lining up by 7 a.m.

“We’re almost back to the very peak of COVID[-19] numbers,” Ryan said, noting 14-18 new families register for assistance every day the pantry is open. “We just don’t see a day under 100 cars now.”

The Charles Schwab Modern Wealth Survey states 56% of Houstonians live paycheck to paycheck, meaning most can’t afford to have savings.

“If you’re just sick enough that you miss four days of work for the flu, the flu can leave you with an eviction notice,” Ryan said. “It can just be so fast.”

The overview

In October, 28 million Americans reported not having enough food in the last seven days—up from 19.8 million Americans in fall 2021, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Cy-Fair food pantries saw high demand in 2023, and nonprofit leaders said they expect to see this growth continue throughout 2024. Grocery inflation; utility and rent cost increases; and more migrants coming to Houston from other countries all contribute to this growth, said Henry Lombraña, the food pantry director for Cypress Assistance Ministries.

These higher numbers are driving some organizations to limit their services.

Lombraña said increased demand in 2023 led to longer wait times for clients, so CAM staff decided to temporarily transition from having clients select their own food to distributing prepacked food boxes with clients’ needs.

Additionally, food donations have been down for some organizations that partially rely on local churches, businesses and individuals to donate. Jeanie Borawski, the food pantry manager for Cy-Fair-based MESA Outreach, said the organization went from serving about 180 families at each food pantry in 2021 to 450 families by mid-2023. At the same time, food donations decreased by about 40% last year.

“Donations have gone down so much because of the cost of food, and we found ourselves really having to kind of scrounge to make sure we had enough,” she said. “So we made the decision to change to being ZIP code-restricted for who we serve through our pantry.”
  • Cy-Fair Helping Hands fed 32,062 people in 2023
  • Cypress Assistance Ministries saw a 66% increase in demand from 2022-23
  • MESA Outreach serves 1,000 families each month
  • 200 kids were added to Cy-Hope's weekend feeding program from 2021-23

Put in perspective

A reduction in federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits has also led to higher food pantry turnouts. Households receiving this government assistance—including 9.5% of Cy-Fair households, according to the U.S. Census Bureau—lost at least $95 a month when a temporary increase due to the pandemic expired after February 2023.

The estimated average monthly SNAP benefit is $202 for a one-person household and $713 for a family of four. Borawski said due to their Social Security income, seniors may be eligible for much less in SNAP benefits—as little as $23 per month.

“We’ve noticed SNAP benefits being less across the board for most families, and then it seems like everybody’s underemployed—they’re making money but not making enough,” Borawski said.
The Census Bureau reports nearly 25% of Cy-Fair households earn less than $50,000 a year. Full-time minimum-wage workers, for instance, have a gross income of about $15,000.

About 66% of Cy-Fair households receiving SNAP benefits include children. Local nonprofit Cy-Hope sends 700 kids in need home with a backpack full of food each weekend, Backpack Program Director Essence Castro said.

“Those kids who, unfortunately, are not getting the proper nutrition, act out ... They can’t concentrate, so now they’re not passing,” she said.

Officials with Feeding Texas, the state association of food banks, celebrated a handful of new Texas laws that went into effect in September that:However, Feeding Texas officials said addressing the SNAP application backlog should be a priority.

By the numbers

The average one-person household receiving SNAP benefits gets $202 per month—about $50 a week—to spend on groceries. Pandemic-era benefits, which provided at least $95 in additional funds each month, ended in 2023.

The following grocery list shows what an individual can purchase from a Cypress Kroger store with $50:
  • 1 gallon milk: $2.99
  • 12 oz. cereal: $3.99
  • 12 eggs: $1.69
  • 12 oz. coffee: $7.49
  • 1 loaf sandwich bread: $2.19
  • 16 oz. peanut butter: $3.79
  • 18 oz. grape jelly: $3.79
  • 1 pound strawberries: $4.19
  • 10 oz. mixed vegetables: $1.69
  • 1 pound ground beef: $4.99
  • 16 oz. spaghetti noodles: $1.79
  • 24 oz. pasta sauce: $2.39
  • Frozen pizza: $4.99
  • 11 oz. salad kit: $4.49
The conditions
  • 58% of Houstonians spent more on groceries in 2023 than in 2022.
  • A 3% increase in general food prices is expected in 2024, while beef and dairy products are expected to rise 5%-8%.
  • Colliers reports Houston-area rent costs increased 21% in Houston-area from 2020-23.
  • $9.6B in emergency SNAP benefits went to Texans from April 2020-January 2023, according to Gov. Greg Abbott's Office.
Lend a hand

Visit to find local food distribution services and SNAP assistance.

Those interested in volunteering, giving financially or donating food can visit the following websites to find out what the most-needed donation items are at Cy-Fair’s local food pantries.