Three years ago, Spring resident Robyn Walker escaped domestic violence to become a single parent to her 10-year-old son. Walker said switching from a two-income household to one income left her in need of help putting food on the table.

“I was cleaning homes at the time, and as a single-income home, it’s extremely difficult to pay your bills, much less feed yourself and your children,” she said. “Whenever gas prices would rise, I would be like, ‘OK, what am I going to choose: gas or food?’”

Walker was just one of 739,120 people who dealt with food insecurity—or the lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy lifestyle—in Harris County in 2017. That year, 16.3% of the county’s population was considered food insecure, peaking above the statewide rate of 14.9%—or 4.2 million people, according to data from Feeding America, a network of food banks.

“Harris County has a higher food insecurity rate than Texas overall,” said Brian Carr, chief advancement officer for Northwest Assistance Ministries, a local nonprofit Walker turned to for help that provides assistance for those in need. “And within that population, children, seniors and single parents are most at risk for food insecurity.”

Carr said these trends are often exacerbated during the summer, when children are no longer in school and when seniors are forced to choose between air conditioning and food.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture measures food security through its National Food Security Survey, which is conducted as an annual supplement to the U.S. Census Bureau’s monthly Current Population Survey. Based on its responses, a household is categorized as having low to high food security.

Within Spring and Klein’s nine ZIP codes, the percentage of food-insecure residents ranged from 10.9% in 77389, which is along the Grand Parkway, to 29.3% in 77090, which is near I-45 and FM 1960, according to 2016 Houston Food Bank data. Nonprofit officials that address food insecurity needs said those numbers are rising.

A growing need

When the Houston Food Bank opened in 1982, the nonprofit distributed 1 million pounds of food. In fiscal year 2017-18, the organization distributed 122 million meals across 18 counties, Chief Impact Officer Nicole Lander said.

Lander attributed the rising demand to limited access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Medicaid and Medicare as well as underemployment and transportation barriers.

Within Spring and Klein’s nine ZIP codes, there are four Houston Food Bank partners.

“We are not keeping up with demand in our current location,” sad Debbie Johnson, president of Hope Center Houston—formerly 1960 Hope Center. “It would seem that only four partners in our area would not be enough.”

One of those partners is NAM. When the organization was established in 1983, it had a budget of $10,000. Today, Carr said NAM’s budget tops $14 million. The nonprofit serves 24 ZIP codes and is one of the largest Meal on Wheels providers in the county.

Carr said he believes food insecurity is becoming an increasing problem because newer, more expensive housing options are replacing low-income apartments in the city of Houston. As a result, families are moving to areas like Northwest Harris County where more affordable options are available.

Hope Center Houston, which meets the needs of homeless individuals, is another nonprofit addressing food insecurity in Spring and Klein. Johnson said when the center opened in 2016, it began by handing out “Manna bags” filled with a few food items to get homeless individuals through the day.

“We found out on the first day this was not going to be sufficient,” she  said. “There was a man who hadn’t eaten for several days. He told us there wasn’t anywhere to get a meal. We were shocked at the level of hunger and decided we would have to feed our guests going forward.”

The organization now feeds 40-50 people breakfast and hot lunch five to six days per week. Johnson said one of the reasons the area has experienced such an increase in homelessness is the closing of inner-city homeless encampments by the city of Houston.

“The [FM] 1960 corridor is the final stop on the bus line, so we have become a destination,” she said. “Our area in Harris County is second only to downtown in the number of people experiencing homelessness.”

Filling the gap

While nonprofits combat food insecurity in the community, school districts fill the meal gap on campuses.

Over the past five school years, the number of students who qualify for free and reduced-price meals at Klein and Cy-Fair ISDs has increased while decreasing at Spring ISD. In each district’s respective 2018-19 budget, KISD allocated $25.4 million for child nutrition, while SISD allocated $26.5 million, and CFISD allocated $61.1 million.

In the 2014-15 school year, 42.9% of KISD students were eligible for free and reduced-price meals. In 2018-19, that number increased to 45%, according to Texas Education Agency data. Similarly, 48.9% of students qualified in CFISD in 2014-15, while 54% qualified in 2018-19.

KISD and CFISD officials agreed the increase can be attributed to better systems at the state level that directly qualify students for the program.

“Students who receive other types of benefits, such as the SNAP or Texas Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, automatically qualify for meal benefits,” said Doug Massey, KISD’s director of Nutrition and Food Services.

In that same period, SISD’s eligible portion of students dropped from 72.1% to 70%, according to TEA data.

SISD Director of Communications Karen Garrison said the decrease could be attributed to fewer families filling out the application because they already receive free breakfast districtwide and free lunches at most schools.

All three districts operate similar programs to combat food insecurity. In addition to offering free and reduced-price breakfasts and lunches to eligible students, dinner  and summer meals are also offered. Many campuses also host food pantries and operate share tables, where students can leave unopened food items for other students.

Klein and Spring ISDs also provide meals for students during the weekend through the Houston Food Bank, and CFISD offers a similar program through nonprofit Cy-Hope.

The future fight

Local nonprofits and school districts are enhancing their existing programs to address future growth.

Hope Center Houston will relocate from a 3,000-square-foot facility to a 14,000-square-foot facility in late July. Johnson said the additional space includes a warming kitchen, allowing the organization to meet the growing needs of the local homeless population.

Likewise, Carr said NAM hopes to expand its mobile food pantry, which allows the organization to distribute food to the community, eliminating transportation barriers.

Additionally, CFISD plans to expand its dinner program from three to six campuses next school year, while SISD plans to pilot its first share table program at two campuses in January 2020, district officials said.

Today, Walker grows much of her own produce and said she encourages others to do the same, as it is a cheap and easy way to become self-sustaining.

“Once you get on your feet, try to do something for somebody else,” she said. “Just don’t go hungry because there are places that will help you.”