COVID-19: The Houston Food Bank Doubles its Output and Volunteers Needed at Distribution Centers


Brian Greene, CEO and President of Houston Food Bank, shares how they have doubled their normal output during COVID-19. Their biggest need is for additional volunteers at partnership locations to help with drive-through and no-contact drop off models.

"This is not a local disaster that the rest of the country can help. This is basically a national disaster. So the resources are spread out. In addition to that, the mass buying at the supermarkets really killed a normal source of supply for us."


Resources Mentioned:

Houston Food Bank

CrowdSource Rescue

Houston Responds COVID-19 Resources


Transcript:

Tommy Rosson:

This is Tommy Rosson with Houston Responds and I'm so glad to be joined today by Brian Greene, the CEO of Houston Food Bank. Brian, thank you for joining us.


Brian Greene:

Tommy it's good to be talking to you again.


Tommy Rosson:

Absolutely. Y'all have, you've been working crazy. The Food Bank has been going hard for the last few weeks and this is going to definitely be a marathon, so we've got a long way to go. This is a situation that's much greater than Harvey and some of the other experiences you've been through with the Houston Food Bank. Tell us a little bit about what work look like with the Houston Food Bank right now?


Brian Greene:

Well, the challenges are, as you pointed out, the need is actually probably a greater Harvey impacted directly about 15% of the households. We're actually looking at more here. So between, with the impact for the lower income families because of the schools being out and the much larger issue with so many people being laid off as well as social distancing need greater resources less. This is not a local disaster that the rest of the country can help. This is basically a national disaster. So the resources are spread out. In addition to that, the mass buying at the supermarkets really killed a normal source of supply for us. And then the then you add on the social distancing standards would have made it difficult to, you know, to just throw people at, you know, at a problem.


And every transaction, everything that we do is significantly harder, both for us and the partners that we work with. So this is a real challenge. On the plus side, produce is actually wildly abundant for us right now because restaurants are a huge consumer of the produce grown in the United States and that's gone dormant. This is bad for the economy, bad for the farmers, and certainly bad for the hospitality industry, but at least we're trying to struggle, we can make this a resource. And so we're really trying to ramp that up. We are trying to do, basically get close to two times our normal output. Trying to treat this as like we would Harvey. But the distributions all have to be done with the social distancing. The vast majority of them now are doing drive through, where they just put the food in the people's trunk. They have no direct contact with the people. And so if they record the information instead of somebody and in the form sign it, they'll, you know, record the information and sign it for them so that you can do this in a safe way. So all of these things create for a very different scenario than what we're used to in a disaster.


Tommy Rosson:

Well, and it's great that y'all have learned to adapt so much on the fly and that we're all learning during that time. So as we look at how this adaption looks, what are the needs, the biggest needs, that you have or that you see with the whole distribution process?


Brian Greene:

So, certainly as the partner that are doing the actual distribution site, so most of the distributions are being done by church pantries. You know, other organizations that, they've got their volunteer core and that volunteer core has obviously been, in some cases, they've lost them as people who, for safety reasons, they need to not be there. So their ability to keep those distribution levels up. We've partnered with a number of organizations that we know and can do large scale where we do full tractor trailer load level distributions under the drive through model. They also need help. Here at the Food Bank, I wish I could say, you know, Hey, we can just need a whole lot more volunteers. We've been putting the call out, but this facility that normally could handle a thousand volunteers, we can only take about a hundred volunteers at a time in order to maintain the spacing that we need.


And so we're doing a pretty good job now of getting that number of volunteers per shift. We do three shifts a day, two on Saturday, one on Sunday. And we're getting them, but we're, we're going to try and transfer some of that work offsite and find some more volunteer groups to do that. I would not say who drives are a need right now for a couple of reasons. One, with the COVID, you know, passing around stuff that other people have been touching and stuff right now is probably not the best idea for us. Also, food drives do create a lot of extra work and right now labor is a very precious commodity for us. So we don't want to do anything that creates extra work. We do think that this will be a nice resource for the pantries, you know, come fall.


And when people realize that all that stuff they bought from HEB and Kroger and Walmart, they didn't actually need half of it. So I think that that'll probably work well for us. So right now it's volunteers, probably mostly at the distribution sites. Is probably the biggest thing where people can help. Cash to any of those sites or, you know, I'm sure what makes a big difference. We have managed to put the appeal out. Well, we've got good donations flowing in. I don't know what a month from now is looking like, but we're good for now. But I do wonder about many of our partners who, may not be getting the attention even though they're doing a lot of work.


Tommy Rosson:

That's one of the things we'll definitely be highlighting with this, with this video is the, a is the partners and what their needs are. One of the things that's fascinating in this is when people think about food drives, they think about, you need dry goods and those kinds of things. But you know, it's passed by five, six people by the time it gets to you and being so limited on your volunteers at the site as opposed to pallets coming in from larger vendors. That's far more economical on the volunteers. So that's why it's so critical that the volunteers work on the back end of putting it in cars and putting it into people's hands. And also then one of the things you brought up was the CrowdSource Rescue program.


Brian Greene:

Yeah. Oh God, I forgot to tell you. Yeah, you and I were talking about that earlier. So CrowdSource Rescue has really done well. I'm so glad that this stepped up. So they started after Harvey, but they kind of went dormant and they refired up that website and they've augmented it. So the nature of this, this disease is, it's causing a lot of people they need to quarantine so they don't get the exposure. And so they're kind of trapped in their houses, especially seniors. So getting people to do the deliveries, cause we've got the product, our partners have the product and so they're doing a thousands of those a day, but their need for volunteer drivers is huge. And that is something that you can do as a very safe volunteer opportunity because you know, you're picking it up and you just gotta do your social distancing when you pick it up. Your in your own car and you do your social distancing when you deliver and you just help someone who really needs it. And it was a very simple volunteer. That's a great thing for people to volunteer for.


Tommy Rosson:

Yeah. That's it. We're glad to be promoting that. And you know, it's also one of those things where when the volunteers trained, they know how to properly handle everything and they're taking care of themselves and they could do multiple deliveries throughout the day and really creates a great experience in doing this in a safe way. One of the things that's also interesting is, you know, a lot of churches can be asking about, well why don't we just open up another food pantry if there's all these needs? But especially we were talking earlier in dealing with produce, it's extra critical that the delivery systems go from your warehouse to these food distribution sites and then out fairly quickly.


Brian Greene:

Yeah. So, after Harvey where we just had huge quantities of food coming in from the rest of the country, it was very important that we try and really maximize the flows out. And so we were doing what we call disaster certifications, which are fairly quick process. Here, that's not so much the case. So, if anything, we want to make sure that we're supporting the partners that we know and trust well. And then there's the ones where we're going to do the large scale produce distributions, they're ones that we know that can do this. Cause there's a couple of factors here. One, when we're turning over forty thousand, fifty thousand whatever dollars worth of product over, we have to know that, okay, this is someone we know. We can trust them. We know that they know what they're doing.


The second thing that we found here is, we, you got to know that you're really going to have the people to do this. And so if you haven't been doing this just because you think those 20 people who told you that they're going to volunteer, there's a really good chance only two are going to show up. This is a very different scenario because people then when they tell their spouse, Oh yeah, I'm going to go volunteer to do this food distribution thing and the spouse freaks out and says, you absolutely shall not, and now suddenly we just send a truck over and we can't do it. So we're not looking for more partners. Unless when you look on our map, you'll go to Houstonfoodbank.org And you can see where all the distributions are. If you see some really glaring gaps where you have the ability to work there, then it is worth calling us to say, okay, is this something we could do? And then we see if it's worth going through the hurdles of getting, you know, making sure that, you know, this is something that your organization truly could do. But in most places now we've got partners there. We need to make sure that those partners can do the work.


Tommy Rosson:

Right. And I know we've helped one of those locations that I know of, and there might actually be a couple more, but that's been a conglomeration of multiple churches coming together to ensure that they're good. They're gonna have the bandwidth and the energy to really do it well and do it right. So I think that's a critical element.


Brian Greene:

Well, you guys have made it like, yeah. I mean it really is neat the way you've got the contact, you know, most of our work has been with churches. And the ability to communicate with the churches and say we need to get this done is a real blessing for us.


Tommy Rosson:

And that's another key element which is helping these local partners double, triple, maybe even quadruple in size because there's a lot of smaller partners that don't feel comfortable meeting right now. Allowing those distribution sites that know what they're doing, have efficient processes and have a large volunteer base, helping them with their volunteer base is going to be the probably the most effective way to get food out there efficiently.


Brian Greene:

Yeah, I think about for like, you know, one church that's already doing this work, if they get five more volunteers that make all the difference in the world of whether or not they can operate successfully. Whereas if you only had five volunteers, you're probably not going to be able to operate successfully. So, you know, really supporting an effort is the best way to go. Right.


Tommy Rosson:

Well great. And then also, finally, you've mentioned this earlier, but I do want him to say it again. I know lots of people will want to give food during this season. But the best thing that you could use right now if you really want to help on the supply side is funds because there's so many restaurants and you brought this up earlier that are not able to be open. So there is a large supply of produce and food supplies that they would be using that you're willing to get donated and go out and purchase. But you need some funds to be able to do that.


Brian Greene:

Yeah. And not just us, but also you think as you, as you go on our map and you can see, okay, who is out there doing work and you know, you call them and ask what their circumstances are cause we need them to be able to keep going. And I know this is creating a real strain on all of the organizations trying to help. Right.


Tommy Rosson:

Well thank you so much for joining us. Anything else you'd like to add?


Brian Greene:

No, just appreciate you so much Tom. You guys keep up the good work.


Tommy Rosson:

Thank you. Pastors, if you want more information about the Houston Food Bank and their needs and their local partners, we're gonna include that in the text of this interview. As well as you can always go out to Houstonresponds.org/COVID-19, and there'll be more, these faith leader insights as well as resources for how your church can respond during this time of crisis. Thank you so much for joining us.


Additional COVID-19 resources for congregations available here.

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