In Houston, Quinn McGee is one of thousands of people who are depending on their local food pantry to stay afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic.
On pick-up days, they wake up early to get ahead of the long line of cars at a southwest Houston food pantry.
“It’s something to behold,” said McGee, who uses they/them pronouns. “You’re seeing all these cars and it’s like, ‘wow.’”
McGee started getting food there in November. They have a partner and a 9-year-old son. McGee said the family has had gaps in paychecks due to unemployment and mental health leave and they’ve struggled to catch up with bills.
Coming home with groceries is a sigh of relief.
“I can rest easy just a little bit,” McGee said. They said they especially appreciate the fresh fruits and vegetables — a healthy alternative to the canned goods that can be high in sodium.
Demand at food banks in Texas has doubled due to COVID-19. But in the new year, it’s likely that fewer fresh foods will make it into grocery bags like McGee’s thanks to a $2 million cut to a statewide grant program.
“That translates to a 19 million pound loss of produce,” said Celia Cole, CEO of Feeding Texas, an association of the state’s 21 food banks. “That’s produce we will not be able to get, it’s produce that will likely go to waste and it’s produce that could be nourishing hungry Texans at a time of unprecedented food insecurity due to the pandemic.”
The Surplus Agricultural Products Grant program pays for leftover produce from state farmers to be shipped to food banks. Feeding Texas estimates the program has been serving around 1.8 million families each month during the pandemic.
But the Texas Department of Agriculture cut 41% of the grant funding to balance the statewide budget anyway.
Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller said that after Gov. Greg Abbott requested some agencies trim their budgets by 5%, his department didn’t have many areas to cut.
Since slashing the program, he’s asked Abbott to use the state’s leftover $2 billion in CARES Act funding to pay for the grants, but said he hasn’t gotten a response.
“We could restore those surplus grants money and keep those food banks whole,” Miller said. “They’re in a real perilous situation right now.”
Houston Food Bank president Brian Greene said the reduced budget means his organization will receive 100 fewer tractor trailer loads of food.
“(The grant program) accounts for about 10% of our total distribution, and that’s fairly consistent of the food banks in Texas,” Greene said. “It’s about a quarter of the produce that we receive.”
Greene said if you consider these cuts along with unprecedented demand and uncertainty around federal USDA funding, food banks are facing a potential food cliff.
Celia Cole of Feeding Texas said Congress’ recent federal economic relief bill should help in the long term, but local food banks still anticipate a delay in relief for the first three months of 2021, which could mean they fall short about 29 million pounds of food each month.
“Almost every single food bank is projecting a potential gap between the demand in their communities and their ability to meet that demand,” Cole said.
There’s an immediate need that the state program could help pay for now, Cole added. She said she hopes when the state legislature convenes in January, it will immediately reverse the budget cut.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Cole said.
The program has received bipartisan support for nearly 20 years, she said, and this is a year they should be increasing funds, not depleting them.
“I think our legislators are responsible people,” Cole said. “I think they don’t want to see their constituents go hungry.”