Brian Greene, president and CEO of the Houston Food Bank, talks about running the largest food bank in the country, collaborating with health care providers, and providing millions of meals to those in need with money raised by Houston Restaurant Weeks.
Q | How did you get started working in food banks? Did something happen in your formative years to pique your interest in the field?
A | You always need to give credit to your parents where that’s due. My dad just turned 80 and he actually still volunteers fulltime for a teen rehab program back in Eureka, California, where I grew up. One memory I have was when I was probably in about the 4th grade. My dad was a scout master and he always had aluminum cans in the back of the pickup truck, pop cans, because scouts would collect them and raise money that way. Anyway, one day we were somewhere and we saw this guy digging through garbage looking for cans. You can figure out what my dad did, but that’s not the real part of the story. He didn’t say, ‘Here, I’ll help you,’ or something like that. He said to the man, ‘Can you do me a favor? I have these cans in the back of my truck and I’m looking to get rid of them. Would you mind taking them for me?’ Even at that young age, it really just struck me. Here’s this guy who’s basically reduced to digging through garbage to survive, and my dad went out of his way to treat him with dignity. I remember thinking I wanted to be like that.
I got into food banks when I was a doctoral student in economics at the University of Tennessee. I took a leave of absence because I wanted to work for a charity in either hunger or homelessness. It was my version of a Peace Corps stint, but I was also hoping to have insight for my dissertation. Hunger and homelessness are two phenomena that don’t make much sense in a rich country, and I just wanted to be in the field for a while, I didn’t care what the job was. While I was looking for a job, I decided to volunteer at this shelter. I just walked in and basically volunteered fulltime. The guy who ran the shelter liked me a lot because, duh, I was volunteering fulltime—of course he’s going to like you. I was also self-directed and interested in the work, but he told me I should apply to be executive director for a food bank opening. I was, quite frankly, not qualified and would not have applied on my own, but they hired me. This was in the early days of food banking and it was much easier than it is now. I was able to get away with the steep learning curve, and I ended up just loving this work so much because we have a lot of impact on a lot of people. It’s very dynamic; it’s very much like being an entrepreneur. You just keep finding more opportunities to piece things together.
Q | How does the Houston Food Bank obtain its provisions?
A | The reality is, there is just a staggering amount of food waste in the United States. Estimates go around 40 percent total, which counts consumer level waste. The household is the worst culprit, but there’s waste all the way through the chain. You think about the dented can at the grocery store where they don’t want that on the shelf because it lowers the perception of the quality of the grocery store. To them, that’s garbage. The food that gets too close to the code date. Of course, you have the restaurant waste, but that is generally small and very expensive to handle. Anyway, there are lots of reasons for waste, including our favorite, the produce. Manufacturing processes have significantly improved. They don’t have that many mess-ups with cans. Americans get perfect cans. It’s just very consistent, absolutely perfect, beautiful. Nature’s not like that. Carrots grow in funny shapes. Americans don’t want carrots in funny shapes. There’s literally billions of pounds of produce that’s gone every year, that’s not even harvested. Then, billions more that, yeah, it was harvested, but it doesn’t actually make it to the store because it gets separated out. We’re just stepping in and saying, ‘We’ll take it.’ We go to the farmer or the packing house and we say, ‘Will you donate this?’ They say, ‘Yeah, but I’m not going to lose money to get it to you.’ We agree to pay their cost to pick and pack it, but they donate it. Otherwise it would be thrown out. So we’re now doing fresh produce for 40 percent of our output. It’s close to three tractor trailer loads a day on average, six days a week.
Q | How does the Houston Food Bank distribute these resources to those in need?
A | It’s a logistics operation and we just pull together all these voluntary resources, coordinate them, and generate output. We’ve grown; we have about 600 charity partners that we distribute to, plus our backpack program, which is for kids who the teachers don’t think are eating on the weekend. That’s at about 700 schools now. It’s a weekly delivery, and about 70 after-school programs exist as well. We call it Kids’ Café sites and we make a hot meal there five days a week. We have about 70,000 volunteers a year, unduplicated. It’s really interesting because it’s just piecing together all of this chaos. It’s taming chaos, that’s what we do. We’re a conduit and we try to flow food through to the community. The challenge really has been managing to piece together this logistics infrastructure. Food banks have been around just a little over 30 years, so we’re still figuring it out. Some of it we pay for, some of it we don’t. We’re just finding all these people who want to work with us. The problem has been, though, that hunger hasn’t gone down despite all this. We’re the largest food bank in the country, the largest independent food bank in the world. Our distribution last year was about $150 million worth of food.
The reality is, society is changing, and it’s changing faster than we can grow. You just can’t keep up. We came up with a concept called Food for Change. The idea is to try and redirect a significant portion of this distribution to be in support of a trajectory for changing programming. By that I mean we find partners who otherwise would not really think the food bank is their thing, i.e., they do hunger, we do this. I said, ‘Wait a minute. You’re basically serving the same people we’re trying to serve. The population of people who live with food insecurity, of people who don’t have reliable access to a sufficient quantity of food, is about 1.1 million. When you look at programs geared toward helping the especially low-income people, that’s our population, too. Instead of just saying, ‘Great, we’ll co-distribute or something,’ we say, ‘No, let’s do better than that. Let’s look at how our distribution can actually support your outcomes.’ So we’re collaborating. One place we’re doing this is at community colleges. Everybody in Houston has heard about the importance of the middle skills market. We don’t have nearly enough people to fill these jobs, and yet the skills required don’t need a four-year degree; most require a year or less of training and there’s a very good wage on the back end of it. From our standpoint, this is a great opportunity to, essentially, shorten our line here at the food bank. So we’re starting a pilot program right now with San Jacinto College and Lone Star College. We want to expand to more campuses. We’re working with two professors at Rice University who have been doing all the evaluation work. The idea is a food scholarship providing the student in the program a very significant amount of food on a reliable basis. We’re shooting for generally about $2,000 worth of food a year that you can shop for, essentially. You’re not paying for it, but you still get to make choices about what you get. It’s essentially like a scholarship so these students can save the money they would be spending on food. The beauty of this is, if this works, we can do this at scale. We could do this for tens of thousands of people.
Q | Tell us about Houston Restaurant Weeks. How does this benefit the Houston Food Bank?
A | Cleverley Stone, a local food journalist and volunteer, started it in 2003. It’s grown substantially and is now our largest annual fundraiser. One hundred percent of the donations go to the Houston Food Bank. Last year, the event brought in nearly $2 million in cash through the meals sold in participating restaurants during the month. That works out to the equivalent of about 6 million meals for those in need.
Restaurants like it because August used to be the slowest month of the year for them. If you think about it, this helps us twofold because if the restaurants are slow, waiters and other low-wage workers are getting almost no hours. The cooks, the dishwashers— everybody loses. And that impacts us, that creates greater need here. Anyway, now most restaurants report that it is probably the second-busiest month of the year for them. It’s amazing just as an economic engine. The more people don’t need us, the better for everyone. We want a prosperous community.
Q | What about the health care field? Are there opportunities for collaboration?
A | Absolutely. We’re implementing similar programs at hospitals and clinics, and we’re hoping to expand these throughout the greater Houston area. To start, we had to get health partners to realize this resource we have is something that could be useful for them. The strategy behind that was essentially going to health partners and saying that we could offer what we’re calling food insecurity training. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that physicians begin using a simple screening tool, as few as two questions, to find out if their patients were food insecure. Instead of just treating an illness, they’re finding out what else is going on in their life.
We’ve come up with a toolkit and piloted this program with Memorial Hermann. We’ve also started doing food scholarship work with organizations like MD Anderson Cancer Center through a partnership called Build, which is essentially a partnership in Pasadena where we provide a produce prescription to participants at certain sites within that community. MD Anderson Cancer Center does the evaluation along with the UT School of Public Health. We’ll be working in the Pasadena Health Center as well as Memorial Hermann Southeast Hospital and two school-based clinics. When a person comes to the site and they’re identified as being food insecure, they’ll be provided a food prescription that they can utilize at a local pantry. They’ll be provided nutrition education materials, access to fruits and vegetables, grains, meats—all kinds of different items. It’s essentially a shopping experience.
We’ve also been targeting disease-specific programs as well. We have a program called FAITH-DM (Feeding America Intervention Trial for Health— Diabetes Mellitus), which is really addressing uncontrolled diabetes for patients who are coming to our pantries. We send these patients a box with diabetic-friendly foods and provide nutrition education classes. The whole idea is to improve their A1C levels and so forth. We’re actually one of three food banks in the nation piloting this program right now. We also have a program called Power Over Diabetes where we collaborated with the American Diabetes Association to offer a series of classes over the course of eight weeks at a neighborhood health center. We provided food boxes full of healthy foods, and our nutrition educators would do demonstrations so participants would know how to utilize the food once they got home.
We’re also doing a project called the Core Connections Network which is basically a chronic condition management class. We train our pantries to provide this education. It’s based on the Stanford chronic condition management program and is designed specifically for low-income populations. A big component of that program is that after you provide education and food resources, we’re also connecting these individuals to a medical home where they can go on a regular basis. You’re providing a connection to qualified health centers, free clinics, places that are near their neighborhoods, places they can go on a continuous basis.
At the Houston Food Bank, we serve about 800,000 people a year, a population that is low income and that overlaps with many patients in the medical center. So we really want to do this smarter. We have, essentially, healthy food to invest. As I said, the produce alone is almost three tractor trailer loads a day. We’re thinking about, what’s the best use? What causes the most positive change? Is it just putting it in a bag and passing it out? No, probably not. It’s combining it. We’re very serious about this.
Q | How can individuals in the community help?
A | The easiest and most impactful thing for the casual donor would be to volunteer. We really emphasize our ability to utilize volunteers to do the vast majority of the actual work around here. We’ve made it easy. You go online, register, get a QR code, schedule your shift and you come in. We’re open evenings and Saturdays, and it’s an entry point. People come in and learn about us and then become interested in specific aspects of our work. For those in health care, we encourage individuals to think about what outcomes they are trying to change that our resources could help, and then I would encourage conversations about how we might piece that together, how we might collaborate.
Q | Any closing thoughts?
A | As I see it, our biggest obstacle is low-wage employment. It really is. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, two thirds of the food insecure households have an adult with a fulltime job. It’s not what people think. Our growth sector is low-wage employment, and as a society, we have to solve it because it’s just getting worse. You see the guy with the ‘Will work for food’ sign—that is a tiny, tiny portion of the need. The vast majority of it is households who are just barely getting by. The reality is, when you have to choose between food or rent, hunger becomes the logical choice. But most of the time, it’s not going to be hunger. What it’s going to be is bad nutrition, because bad nutrition is cheaper. You don’t have to suffer and, quite frankly,
the way we have made our food supply in the United States, you’ll probably enjoy the bad nutrition. Now, you won’t enjoy your health consequences, and that becomes part of the trap.