13 Investigates why some have a tougher time getting food

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Janey Williams opens her refrigerator and starts taking inventory.

Two dozen eggs, orange juice, four lemons, mustard, mayonnaise and a few bottles of water.

"I have a package of pork chops and I have a bag of tilapia, and I have three -- well don't count these sausages. We're going to boil 'em and eat 'em so that's what I've got in my freezer," Williams said Wednesday afternoon. "That's it. It's not a lot."

It's enough food to last her another week or two, as long as she skips breakfast, she said.

Williams relies on her daughters to drive her to the grocery store. The nearest one isn't within walking distance for the 56-year-old.

More than 500,000 Houstonians live in food deserts, or low-income areas where the nearest grocery store in an urban area is more than a mile away, according to the Rice University Kinder Institute for Urban Research.

For those residents who were already worried about running out of food by the end of the month, it's getting harder to keep their fridges stocked the COVID-19 pandemic continues, and panic buying continues into April.

"By the time they're able to make it to the grocery store, there needs to be food available for them and it needs to meet whatever they're qualified or able to purchase," said Dr. Quianta Moore, a fellow in Child Health Policy at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy. "With everyone going out and buying up all the toilet paper and buying up all of these things, it means you've exacerbated an already very difficult situation for these families."

Moore's research shows that in some low-income Houston neighborhoods, half of the residents don't have consistent access to food.

"We're talking about families who don't have vehicles, don't have transportation and now they have to be so sophisticated to be able to navigate the system," Moore said. "Please stop hoarding. Please stop buying more than what you actually need to feed your family."

The Houston Food Bank said distributions are up 50 percent since the pandemic hit. The food bank is soliciting volunteers to deliver quarantine food kits to seniors or others without easy access, but even then, they acknowledge it's not easy for everyone.

"Access is definitely a problem. It's in the thousands, if not tens of thousands of people, especially seniors who, for whatever reason, they cannot actually get to one of the distribution sites. Now we are doing a lot of deliveries," said Houston Food Bank CEO Brian Greene. "The problem with the coronavirus is it's making everything so much more difficult, so techniques that would have worked in sunny days are just not working now."

Lines at the local school district food distribution sites sometimes stretch more than a mile, but residents in neighborhoods that don't have easy access to food need to speak up to make sure they receive the help they need, Moore said.

"This is an overlooked population and I think honestly many families feel shame about saying, 'I don't have enough food' because food is something that is so basic, so fundamental and as a parent, the idea that I can't provide enough food for my children, it does have this sense of shame that's attached to it," Moore said. "We really need families to be telling their story. We really need people to come out and say, 'Hey policymakers, hey city, hey county, hey federal government, what you're doing is not sufficient because here are the details of my story.'"

Government assistance

In Harris County, 573,942 people were eligible for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, in March, according to the Texas Health & Human Services Commission. More than half were under the age of 18 and nearly 11 percent were over the age of 60.

Statewide, 3.3 million people were eligible for SNAP last month, with benefits totaling more than $369 million.

But, for residents like Gilbert Wallace, who live in food insecure areas but aren't receiving those benefits, there are difficult decisions ahead. Wallace was laid off from his job at a construction company. With half-empty fridges, he said his neighbors in Northeast Houston will sometimes come together and share whatever few ingredients they have in order to create a meal for their families.

But as more time passes, he's doing what he can to earn a few dollars, like trying to sell some of his shoes, sports equipment and an inflatable playground.

Wallace said he doesn't have a working car or a nearby bus route that can take him to the grocery store, and the nearest one is 5 miles away. He usually makes the 15-minute walk to a nearby convenience store to buy essentials, like water and toilet paper, but that's getting harder to get as pandemic prices have gone up.

"It's real chaotic. I'm not going to lie," Wallace said.

For families who need to get a ride to the store, there's no chance for a second trip.

"It's not like we can jump in a car and take off. No we've got a schedule. We got to call, 'Hey, look can we go to the store tomorrow?' And they come pick us up," Wallace said. "Before all this happened, everybody was willing to help everybody no matter what. It's like now, nobody trusts nobody. Everybody's scared."

In North Houston, Williams gets about $700 in social security and health benefits every month, and another $39 in food stamps. But even if her daughter can take her to the grocery store, it's not enough.

By the time she pays for rent, insurance, water, gas and a cheap phone and internet plan, there's not much left for food or other essentials.

"That doesn't buy any food that I need for the month. I might be able to get a loaf of bread, a case or two of water, toilet paper," Williams said. "If I didn't have my kids (helping me), I would starve to death."

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