At Thanksgiving, food bank reminds that hunger is year-round issue

Forklift driver Raymond Moutan works at the Southeast Texas Food Bank.

While the holidays are a time for cheer, celebration and religious observance, it is also a chance to reflect on the problem of hunger for many Southeast Texans.

Hunger and Homelessness Week is held each year the week before Thanksgiving, from Nov. 15-23 this year, to promote the effort to end hunger and homelessness, also affording an opportunity to examine the problem of poverty in Texas.

According to Feeding America Map the Meal Gap 2012 statistics, there are about 4.7 million food insecure Texans, which includes 58,890 in Jefferson County; 15,660 in Orange County; and 9,370 in Hardin County. In addition, the most recent statistics from the Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimate more than 20,000 homeless individuals living in Texas alone.

While the holidays bring an increased number of volunteers to food banks, soup kitchens and food drive events, the aforementioned numbers show there is a need for this type of benevolence year-round, said Dan Maher, executive director of the Southeast Texas Food Bank.

“Last year we gave out a little more than 4 million pounds (of food). In this quarter, which is our busiest volunteer quarter, (we gave out) about 1.1 million pounds. It’s just a little more than you might expect in a quarter if everything was equal. It’s not a big spike, and I think that is an important message. Hunger is really a year-round issue and is not something that just gets heightened in the holiday season,” Maher said.

So why are so many willing to volunteer their time and crack open their checkbook this time of the year?

“That’s the beauty of this time of year,” Maher said. “The world’s consciousness is there. It’s getting colder. Homelessness and hunger pulls at your heart strings a little bit more during the holiday season, so the response this time is higher.”

Volunteers like 19-year-old Marisol Menchaca and her 23-year-old sister Jessica Menchaca, both of Groves, worked at the Southeast Texas Food Bank warehouse Friday, Nov. 21, ahead of Thanksgiving, sorting salvaged food that will be distributed to families.

“It’s important to help others. I would have loved for someone to help me out when I needed it, so I don’t mind helping,” said Marisol, explaining that her family has struggled to buy groceries and pay bills as well. “We just went on the website and decided to volunteer.”

Having the volunteers come during this time of the year shows the spirit of the community, said Susan Detweiler, Southeast Texas Food Bank volunteer and food drive coordinator.

“What we do here wouldn’t happen without all the volunteers, so we’re really thankful for them,” she said.

After volunteering at the Southeast Texas Food Bank this Thanksgiving season, the Menchaca sisters said they plan to continue doing so well beyond the holidays.

“Me and my sister are thinking about doing it every Friday throughout the year. Not just the holidays,” Marisol said.

While Maher would like to see more volunteers share the Menchaca sisters’ desire to volunteer year-round, those who do give their time during the holidays are much appreciated, he said.

“We have our biggest food drive of the year this time of the year,” Maher said, referring to the Share Your Christmas food drive, which ends Dec. 4. “Our own internal goal, what the food bank would like to get, is 75,000 pounds.”

As far as Thanksgiving distribution goes, the Southeast Texas Food Bank will, through its member agencies, give out around 60,000 pounds of turkey, Maher said.

“That’s probably enough to serve about 40,000-50,000 holiday meals,” he said. “About 100,000 people are helped annually by our agencies, so that’s almost like saying 40-50 percent of those they help annually get a Thanksgiving holiday meal out of this single distribution.”

One holiday meal, however, isn’t going to end hunger for the thousands of Southeast Texans who struggle to make ends meet, Maher reminded, a message he hopes will continue to raise awareness about the serious hunger problem in the area.

At the same time, every little bit helps, he said, and as those in poverty make difficult decisions this holiday season on whether to pay bills or buy gifts, Southeast Texas Food Bank and member agencies will do their part to relieve some of that stress felt by families by taking food out of the equation.

“They want their family to enjoy what other families get to do,” said Audine Rathbun, agency relations specialist for the Southeast Texas Food Bank. “This is a way of providing for an opportunity that they may not otherwise get.”

For more information on how to volunteer or donate to the Southeast Texas Food Bank, visit setxfoodbank.org or call (409) 839-8777.

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