Houston's real hunger game: The holidays aren't so sweet...

By Marene Gustin, CultureMap Houston |  Dec 24, 2013

Culture Map Houston

For many of us the holidays are about an abundance of friends, family, gifts and food. BFF holiday lunches at Tony’s, roasted turkey with all the trimmings, cocktails and gifts of bottles of wine with little bows attached.

It’s all very stuffing (and I mean both kinds) but it should also be a time to reflect on those who don’t have enough to eat. And there are a lot of them.

According to the Houston Food Bank’s (HFB) last Hunger Study (they do one every four years) 865,800 people in Southeast Texas required help from the food bank. Forty seven percent of those were children, 94 percent were not homeless and most of them were employed. They are mostly the working poor, individuals and families who are forced to choose between paying rent, utility bills and doctor bills or putting food on the table.

Only 23 percent of HFB’s clients receive Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, the new name for government food stamps. Which is a pretty low number.

Houston Food Bank is the largest nonprofit food bank in the nation, serving 18 counties in Southeast Texas. Without Houston Food Bank there would be more people in Texas on SNAP, and even then they might go to bed hungry.

The average SNAP benefit per person per day in Texas was $4 — and that was before last month when Congress lowered benefits.

Can you imagine eating on $4 a day? That’s $28 dollars a week. I spend more than that on one lunch. But clearly if you are only spending that little on food you aren’t eating out at Houston’s better restaurants. You probably aren’t even eating at fast food joints with dollar menus.

If you want to know what that would be like, you can take the SNAP Challenge, where people around the country eat on SNAP benefit amounts for one week. Houston Food Bank CEO and president Brian Greene has done just that for three years in a row.

“Each time has been different,” Greene says. “The first time I wanted to see if I could eat healthy. We have dieticians here so I had them design a menu plan for me. That was the worst. In order to eat healthy I had to eat things I didn’t like.”

Such as lots of cabbage and split peas.

“I answered the question of how hungry you have to be to eat something you don’t like,” he says. Greene was hungry a lot that week. “And one revelation was just how time consuming it is,” he adds. “A single, working mother may not have the time to do all that shopping and cooking.”

Food Challenge Take Two

This year, back in September Greene tried it again.

“I didn’t want to be miserable,” Greene says. “So I stocked up on hot dogs and ramen noodles.”

Yes, those instant noodles you ate in college are cheap and filling but they are also incredibly high in sodium and fat. And I’m guessing the hot dogs weren’t premium beef ones but the cheaper kind made with meat parts, fat and cereal filler.

Greene also admits that taking the SNAP Challenge is a lot easier than living it.

“It was my best experience with the SNAP Challenge,” Greene admits, “but my least healthy.”

Greene also admits that taking the SNAP Challenge is a lot easier than living it.

“In my case it’s a week,” he says. “But if I had to live this way I’d probably make a lot less nutritional choices.”

No need to try this yourself during the holidays and forego your turkey and trimmings, Christmas cookies and New Year’s Eve bubbly, but why not donate to Houston Food Bank (here) or donate some volunteer hours.

And if you do donate cash, Chevron Corporation will match every dollar up to $100,000 until Dec. 31.

Oh, and don’t feel guilty about dining out, particularly if you do it next summer during Houston Restaurant Weeks, which is the largest fundraiser for the Food Bank. This year it raised $1,285,260 to feed the hungry.

This article originally appeared in CultureMap Houston publication. Content was produced by outside parties not affiliated with Bank of America. Opinions or ideas expressed are not necessarily those of Bank of America, Merrill Lynch Wealth Management, U.S. Trust or Bank of America Merrill Lynch, nor do they reflect their views or endorsement. These materials are for informational purposes only. Bank of America, Merrill Lynch Wealth Management, U.S. Trust and Bank of America Merrill Lynch do not assume liability for any loss or damage resulting from anyone's reliance on the information provided.

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