Two questions that show if Americans are food insecure:
Are you worried that your food will run out?
Are you worried that your money to spend on food isn't enough?
These are two thoughts bedeviling millions of Americans in 2023 who are "food insecure," and they are two of the questions the U.S. Department of Agriculture used to determine that the number of food insecure people increased by more than 30% from 2021 to 2022.
As the holidays gear up, hundreds of people waited in line outside the West Houston Assistance Ministry, including Earnest Duran.
"I come here like every other week and get the necessities that I need for me to live on," the 64-year-old man said.
Duran is among roughly 44 million Americans who fall under the term "food insecure": It means you don't have access or the means to get adequate nutritious food or culturally relevant food. Texas is the second most food insecure state in the nation by percentage, behind Arkansas.
"For sure, the meat prices. Those have gone way up," Duran said.
Along with him, 4.6 million Texans are considered food insecure. Joining Duran in the line was 71-year-old Betty Miertschin.
"There's so many hungry people out there, they lost jobs and stuff and they can't seem to feed them all," Miertschin said.
The retiree lives on her Social Security benefits and said she had counted on a previous job's benefits to give her more economic security.
"I mean I had a job for almost 20 years; two days before I could get retirement, they sent it out to the East Coast," she said. She adds her fixed income is not going as far as she hoped.
"I used to pay less than a dollar for a head of cauliflower; now it's $2 and something."
Food costs are not the only factors making life tougher for working-class Americans and those stuck in poverty. Rice University's Kinder Urban Institute says more than 1 million Houstonians spend more than 30% of their income on rent and that rising rents have outpaced increases in median incomes. Rice University's Christopher Kulesza, a scholar in child health policy, says more than 1 million food insecure Texans are children.
He said close to one-third of eligible families in the Lone Star State have not enrolled in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs. The program, previously known as food stamps, is means-tested and often involves a complicated application process in Texas, Kulesza said, adding "the complications often act as a barrier" to people getting help they need.
Flor Carranza, 63, of Houston, told Scripps News her rent shot up after the pandemic.
"The rent, the rent. I now pay $1,200 per month. It's much higher," Carranza said.
When rents consume more take-home pay and cash assistance, those living on the margins spend less on food.
"The thing that's important to understand is food insecurity isn't about food, it's about income, where the families are now getting hit from the other end with a rate that their wages went up," said Brian Greene, CEO of the Houston Food Bank.
"Now that's pretty much died down, but inflation is still going on and it's still impacting them," said Greene.
He said the need now is outpacing what it was during the pandemic.
"Those with the lowest incomes, the families felt it the hardest, because like the bottom quintile, for instance, they spend about 60% of their income on housing costs," Greene said.
The Houston Food Bank is the largest clearinghouse of donated and excess food in the region. It distributes aid to dozens of smaller food banks in the area.
Target Hunger Houston distributes that aid in the city's northeast quadrant.
Sandra Wicoff, the CEO of that food bank said, "Coming off the pandemic, there were a lot of benefits and a lot of money flowing that has since stopped. The needs did not stop."
Wicoff, like Greene, said inflation has added to the misery.
Economic pressures are taking their toll on the economically vulnerable.
"They're making choices: Do I buy groceries? And what I used to get so much for $50, I can only get a little bit now," said Lisa Iparrea of West Houston Assistance Ministries. She added that many clients of that agency often skimp on food to pay utility bills, too.
Miertschin, wheeling a grocery cart, looked up at the sky before she carried her produce, canned goods and grains.
"Well, I say I've been blessed because I just, I ask God to help me every day, so that's my thing, you know?"
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