Food insecurity persists even as the economy rebounds from the downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. About 1.2 million Texas households will have difficulty accessing food this year.
The national public health crisis exacerbated the problem as business closures and job losses mounted and families struggled to make ends meet. More than 450,000 people in the Central Texas Food Bank service area faced hunger.
“Families with more limited financial resources were hit really hard,” says Paul Gaither, marketing and communications director for the Austin-based food bank serving 21 counties. “We saw huge spikes in demand.”
As the economic climate has improved and people have found work, nearly 40% of Central Texans facing food insecurity earn too much to qualify for federal food assistance programs. Most of the food bank’s clients say they must choose between buying food and paying for health care or housing.
“For these working poor, food assistance provided by the food bank and its partner agencies is crucial,” Gaither says. “Food insecurity is a serious problem. The face of hunger my not be what you think it is.”
Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas (BCBSTX) has a longstanding commitment to investing in food banks across Texas and building sustainable resources and strategies to combat hunger and improve health.
“We must be part of the solution when it comes of transforming people’s lives to reduce barriers in accessing nutritious food."
Those local food banks, with help from the national hunger-relief organization Feeding America, are buying nutritious and culturally appropriate foods for the communities they serve. They’re also developing and implementing policies focused on finding a larger variety of nutritious foods needed to help prevent diet-related conditions that can compromise their clients’ health.
“We’ve seen food insecurity in our communities amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Sheena Payne, director of BCBSTX’s community investments. “We must be part of the solution when it comes of transforming people’s lives to reduce barriers in accessing nutritious food. That’s why we teamed up with Feeding America to continue our support of local food banks.”
In 2020, almost 11% of American households had trouble feeding all family members, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report. Meantime, an existing gap between Black and white households expanded, with nearly 22% of Black households experiencing food insecurity, compared with a little more than 7% of white households.
That struggle to provide nourishing meals for themselves and their families puts people at risk for a lifetime of poor health outcomes and disparities. Research shows food insecurity can lead to hypertension, stroke, cancer, diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and kidney disease.
“When someone has food insecurity, they're oftentimes dealing with trade-offs with food and other basic needs or engaging in coping strategies such as eating fewer meals or watering down their meals,” says Jessica Hager, Feeding America’s director of health care partnerships and nutrition.
Those trade-offs can lead to developmental delays and behavioral issues for children and disease management problems for adults with diabetes and other health conditions, Hager says.
A focus on nutrition and culture
This year BCBSTX has invested in Feeding America’s work focusing on closing nutritional gaps, addressing health disparities and creating culturally competent connections with food bank clients. Central Texas Food Bank is among several carrying out this work with Feeding America grants supported by Blue Cross and Blue Shield plans in Illinois, Montana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas.
In Texas, the organizations are:
- Brazos Valley Food Bank
- Central Texas Food Bank
- Coastal Bend Food Bank
- Concho Valley Regional Food Bank
- East Texas Food Bank
- El Pasoans Fighting Hunger
- Food Bank of the Rio Grande Valley, Inc.
- Food Bank of West Central Texas
- Galveston County Food Bank
- Houston Food Bank
- San Antonio Food Bank
- Southeast Texas Food Bank
- Tarrant Area Food Bank
- West Texas Food Bank
- Wichita Falls Area Food Bank
Projects include surveying and engaging their communities to understand their food needs and cultural preferences, while building trust with the people they serve and working to provide communities with a better balance of nutritious foods.
“This goes beyond food categories of protein, dairy and produce, but really what are the specific ingredients that are traditional or special in one's culture,” Hager says. “We know that in the United States there's such great diversity in our food and the cultures that are represented, and we as a food bank network want to be able to meet those food needs and preferences.”
Although operations have begun to stabilize, the Central Texas Food Bank still is feeding an average of 15,000 more people a week than it did before the pandemic. The food bank, with help from its 300 community partners, distributed a record 64.5 million pounds of food in 2020, up from 50 million pounds the previous year.
“We appreciate everything BCBSTX does for us,” Gaither says. “The community always really steps up.”