GBTB - DFY Celia Cole | Feeding Texas

Understanding The Causes Of Hunger In Texas With Celia Cole Of Feeding Texas

 

What does it mean to be food insecure in Texas? Is that even the right language? What are the underlying causes of food insecurity? We get answers to all of these questions and more in our conversation with Celia Cole, the CEO of Feeding Texas. She explains how the pandemic made food insecurity more visible to the general public and how food banks across the state rose to the occasion. Celia shares her current advocacy work; she’s so involved that she even recorded this episode from the capital! Continue listening to this series to learn alongside Claire and Nichole as they deepen their understanding of the issues facing the most vulnerable in Texas.

 

Attention Mentions:

Celia: The Walking Dead, on AMC and Netflix

Claire: The Last of Us on HBO Max

Nichole: Recaps on YouTube of Married at First Sight Australia called Rehashed by Wilko

Watch the episode here

 

Listen to the podcast here

 

Understanding The Causes Of Hunger In Texas With Celia Cole Of Feeding Texas

We have an exciting interview to share with you where we spoke to Celia Cole who is the CEO of Feeding Texas. Help me understand what this is, Nichole. I think they oversee all of the food banks in Texas, is this right?

Yes, they are the connecting point of the 21 food banks that are in Texas.

Thank you. Celia is incredible. She has been doing this work for 25 years. Work in the nonprofit space in trying to alleviate hunger in Texas. She has so much knowledge about what’s happening now, what’s happened in the past, the solutions that have been effective, and the ones that haven’t helped as much. She helped give us a better understanding of what the state’s role is in combating food insecurity. What Texas’ role is. What NGO’s role is, which stands for Non-Governmental Organizations.

Not going to lie, I have had to look that up a couple of times. She puts it together well. It’s a multi-pronged problem. Everyone has a role and the importance of working together to see real long-lasting systemic change happen. I learned a lot. I was just telling Nichole right now, we were talking about SNAP benefits and WIC, which are federal programs. I learned that.

Even when you apply for some of these assistance programs, you still have to wait 30-plus days to get approval or not. I’m like, “You are applying, you have a high need, and you still have to wait. What do you do in the meantime?” It’s things I never thought about because I have never had to experience this, but I definitely have a better sense of what it’s like for those folks. I would like to see it be less time for them. How do we do that? Anyway, lots of great food for thought. What are some of the things you are thinking about, Nichole?

It was nice to have something to be proud of Texas for having done. Celia pointed out that we in Texas were on the front lines of creating an electronic version of applying for multiple programs at once. Texas was one of the first states to adopt the card system. You know how it works. It’s like a debit card. I was heartened to hear that. It was nice to hear that Texas was doing something that was technologically advanced in this space.

Let’s learn more from our interview with Celia Cole.

We are really excited to talk with Celia Cole who is the CEO of Feeding Texas. Hi Celia, how are you doing?

Hi, Sarah, how are you? Thanks for having me.

Yes. You were telling us that you are at the Capitol?

I am. That’s my background. The beautiful wood paneling at the Capitol.

The Texas Capitol. For our readers, it is the legislative session, so there are lots of activities happening right now and lots of decision-making. There are a lot of work being done at the Capitol and lots of our friends are there pushing forward their important advocacy work. To get started, we love to get to know a little bit more about our guests about where they came from, and how they got interested in their work. Can you tell us, are you from Texas?

I have to admit I’m not. I have been here for many years. I’m on my way to earning my stripes as a Texan, but it did take a long time. I came here for grad school, and then I ended up staying. Originally, I’m from New Haven, Connecticut. That’s where I grew up and spent most of my life there and then a couple of years in California. I started my career working for the peace movement out in California in the Bay Area. I came here in 1994 to Austin to get a master’s degree.

I feel like a lot of people I know are from New Haven. I’m like, “Isn’t that a small area?” Yet all these people seem to circulate through there.

Small state. Very urban area and a poor city. It’s a big claim to fame as Yale University like a lot of college towns. They would be nothing without the college.

Like Austin so many years ago and now it’s everything.

It’s just a sleepy little college town. No more.

Since this is a political show, we are curious to know a little bit more about what your childhood was like regarding politics. Did you come from a family that discussed politics?

Yes, although there were certain topics that were always off-limits that we couldn’t discuss. We’d sometimes put signs up on the door that said, “Don’t talk about this at family gatherings.” My dad was intensely political and certain things could set him off. We were a family that was very united and had the same political beliefs.

We haven’t gone through a lot of the challenges that I know a lot of my friends have in the past few years when politics has become so divided that certain family members aren’t even invited anymore. We actually do a charity gift exchange at Christmas every year where we draw names, and then you make a donation to a charity that you think the person whose name you have drawn would like.

We then get together and share the charities, and because we are also like-minded politically, everybody gives to the same charities. It’s not that interesting. My parents were very active. They were somewhat activists. They were fairly non-conventional people, but they did a lot of work around the Nuclear Weapons Freeze in the ’80s.

They were involved in Central American solidarity work and were part of a big sister city project between New Haven and Leon, Nicaragua. I always joke, it’s like a family that was always protesting one thing or boycotting something else. I think that’s where I got bit at an early age by that desire to bring about change and a sense of justice.

It’s so important. Speaking of change and justice, what was it that drew you to nonprofit work?

Just that it was the best space. At least back in the ’90s when I started doing this work, it was the best space in which to bring about change. Maybe that’s changed a little bit over time as business has become more socially involved in more social enterprises now. When I started doing this work, it was through nonprofits that you were able to make a difference.

I have been in the nonprofit space my whole career. I worked very briefly for a private consulting firm after grad school. Other than that, I have worked briefly for the state for the Department of Human Services in Texas, which no longer exists. A brief stint there and a brief stint in the private sector, but my heart’s with the nonprofit sector.

Can you tell us a little bit about Feeding Texas and then how you ended up working there?

Feeding Texas is the state association that supports all of the food banks in Texas. There are 21 and they each have a different geographic area that they serve, but collectively they serve the whole state. It’s truly a statewide network. We support them in a variety of different ways by being their voice here at the Capitol. Supporting our national network, Feeding America at the federal level in policy debates.

GBTB - DFY Celia Cole | Feeding Texas
Feeding Texas: Feeding Texas is the state association that supports all of the food banks in Texas. There are 21, and they each have a different geographic area they serve, but collectively serve the whole state.

 

They also do a lot of statewide coordination of their work, particularly during disasters and with crisis responses. In the case of the pandemic, a lot of government relations, fundraising, and statewide coordination. Our network is vast and diverse. We cover every corner of the state of Texas, but we are all united in a common mission to end hunger in the state.

I came to Feeding Texas, I didn’t have a specific background in nutrition policy or anti-hunger, but I was very interested in social and economic justice issues. I had worked for Every Texan, formerly the Center for Public Policy Priorities for several years as their nutrition policy analyst. During that time, I had a lot of opportunities to work with food banks. They just seemed like this natural army on the ground fighting hunger. The opportunity came up many years ago to lead the network. It was really appealing to me to think about having that army of hunger fighters at my disposal.

I think you shared with us that you have been fighting hunger for 25 years. Can you tell us a little bit about what you have seen over that 25-year timeframe? Is alleviating hunger in Texas getting better or is the gap widening? Where would you say we are on this trajectory so far?

We have brought food insecurity down over the years. That’s largely due to making sure we maintain investments in programs like SNAP and the other federal nutrition programs. Waxes and wanes food insecurity rises during bad economic times and then comes back down. I think a real testament to the effectiveness of our federal nutrition safety net came during the pandemic.

We bolstered aid to families who were struggling through SNAP and through the child nutrition programs in WIC. At a time when you would have expected food insecurity to soar, it didn’t and it went down. When we properly invest in programs designed to prevent hunger, we can keep people from suffering. I don’t think we have done a good job of getting at the root causes of hunger. Until we tackle that, we are never going to get rid of hunger.

We talk about eliminating hunger. What we are talking about is keeping people who are struggling and facing food insecurity from going hungry. Problems underlying food insecurity, I don’t think we have done a good job or gotten better at. When someone is going hungry, it’s not about food, it’s about money and lack of resources. Until we can tackle some of those underlying causes of poverty and tackle the intersection between race and poverty particularly, I think we are always going to see high levels of hunger.

I was hoping we could maybe back up a little bit so that people understand what the resources are that are available when they are available for people. If you could tell us more about SNAP and WIC.

The federal nutrition safety net, it’s got maybe fifteen programs total, but the big ones are SNAP, WIC, and then the school meal programs, breakfast and lunch. There’s an afterschool program and a summer program that are add-ons to the school meal program. Those are the big ones. SNAP is the biggest, it’s our nation’s backbone defense against hunger.

It reaches a lot of people and it also reaches a lot of different kinds of people. It’s the broadest of the federal nutrition programs in terms of scope and scale. It provides people with a debit-like card. They call it an EBT card to purchase groceries at the supermarket. It’s an income transfer program. People are eligible with income up to 165% of the poverty level in Texas.

Your net income has to be below poverty. It serves mostly people who are living in poverty. It reaches families with kids, seniors, and people with disabilities. Single adults can get SNAP, you don’t have to have children. It’s a very broad program. The average benefit is per person per month about $130. It’s intended to be a supplemental program. That’s what SNAP stands for, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

It’s a way to provide people with an ongoing source of resources for food. Versus what the charitable feeding network and food banks do, we are not intended to be a year-round source of reliable food. We are there to fill in the gaps, help people during a crisis, help people when their SNAP benefits run out, and help people who don’t qualify for SNAP. That brings me back to who qualifies for SNAP.

It’s a very expansive program. It’s for citizens and most legal permanent residents. Undocumented people can’t get SNAP. In Texas, that’s often a population that falls through the cracks and has higher levels of hunger as a result. There are work requirements. If you are able-bodied, you must work in order to keep benefits and there are time limits for single adults who are able-bodied.

I want to highlight something because I feel like this is such a misconception. We got some feedback from our immigration in the border episode. It’s from one particular person who was saying that people cross and immediately start benefiting from benefit programs. Maybe if you could say that again for the people.

Undocumented immigrants, first of all, come here to work and they are spark plugs for our local, state, and federal economy. They are here first and foremost to work. Whatever they take out in benefits, they more than pay in taxes back into the system. That’s the main point I’d want to make. Virtually, no undocumented immigrant can. They can access SNAP, which is the biggest of the federal nutrition programs. They are simply not eligible and in fact legal, permanent residents face a bar upon entering the country. That’s definitely a misconception. They are not driving caseloads.

Can we talk a little bit about the root causes? Why are people going hungry?

I think it’s about the difference in access to power, and who has a voice in the system and who doesn’t. People who have a voice and power are more likely to also have the resources that they need to thrive. I think it goes back to lots of discrimination in this country. Again, hunger fundamentally gets back to who has power and who doesn’t. That of course leads to poverty. It leads to adequate access to health, housing, food, and wealth. At the end of the day, it’s about who has power and who doesn’t.

Something that Nichole and I had been thinking about a lot is this idea of precarity and how you can be someone who’s working and still come up short month over month. How do we get out of that cycle, so these folks aren’t having to depend on SNAP or food banks, but can make a livable wage so that they are self-sufficient? Is that a matter of policy change? What are your thoughts on that? I’m sure you work a lot in this realm.

I want to say that living month to month is not just exclusive to people who are low-income. One of the things the pandemic taught us is that the majority of Americans are living month to month even when their incomes aren’t below the poverty level. People with solidly middle-class incomes don’t have savings and are living paycheck to paycheck.

When the pandemic hit and people were suddenly without a paycheck, many people, not just people who had been living in poverty beforehand, were forced to turn to food banks and SNAP. I think the problem of lack of savings and too many people living on the edge is a much bigger problem than just the one-facing people who are food insecure.

Doing whatever we can to increase wages so that they keep pace with the cost of living, that’s probably ensuring that there’s a path away to prosperity. When people enter low-wage jobs, there’s a path for them to get ahead. I think that was the promise of the American dream. Even if you started at the lowest run of the ladder, if you worked hard, you would move up and get ahead. It’s simply not true anymore. We see too much wealth concentrated in too few hands and that prosperity is not shared evenly.

How do we think of all this in terms of the role of the state versus the role of the federal government? What you have described with SNAP, WIC, and the school lunch programs, if I’m understanding correctly, are all federally based. I’m curious about what role the state plays in any of this.

I think they are all federally funded. SNAP is an entitlement program which is important. That means that no matter how many people, everyone who’s eligible will get the benefit. Versus a block grant where it’s fixed. That’s why being an entitlement program is so important. When economic times are bad, or for example during a pandemic and the need grows, the program grows with it.

Having it be a federal program also means there are federal standards, both for who gets benefits and what benefits you get. If it were a state program, it would be up to the state to set those rules. You might have some states providing much more generous benefits and higher eligibility levels, and other states doing something different.

I think that the eligibility structure is important because states can’t borrow federal government. They can’t have the same deficit that the federal government can. When states are low on revenue, they have to cut services. Having it be a federal program is important. It allows us to keep the program strong at the times when it’s needed most, which tends to be when state offers are depleted.

There’s a lot of flexibility in the SNAP program and in all the nutrition programs to give states options to make the program work best for them and meet the target population in their state. That’s good and bad. In some states, they have taken advantage of options to make the program work better. In Texas, we have gone in the other direction and taken advantage of options that limit eligibility or limit enrollment. We are not taking advantage of options that could allow us to make sure that the program works better and reaches people more effectively.

When we are in the capital working on SNAP policy, it’s about convincing the state that these options will make the program work better for Texas. It doesn’t come at a cost for Texas because the benefits are all federally funded. If it’s a change that will lead to more people being eligible, it doesn’t affect the state budget.

Can you tell us about some of the opposition that you hear? If it’s available or if it’s not coming out of Texas’s budget, why wouldn’t you take the win?

Everyone agrees almost across the board at the state legislature in public that hunger’s a bad thing. Kids shouldn’t go hungry. Seniors shouldn’t have to choose between food and medicine. Families shouldn’t have to choose between putting gas in the car and feeding themselves. It’s not a disagreement over the problem.

We quibble over the extent and the causes of the problem, but everyone agrees that food shouldn’t be an impossible choice and no one should go hungry. When it comes to the solutions, there’s the most disagreement. I think that gets down to ideology. People come to policymaking with pretty much a set core set of beliefs about the role of government in fighting social problems. Some people believe the government should be limited. Other people believe that government has a big role to play in leveling the playing field.

We argue about how big the problem is and what's to be done about it, but everyone agrees that food shouldn't be an impossible choice. No one should go hungry. Click To Tweet

Can we talk more about that? Nichole, I’d love it if you jump in because you were sharing in a previous interview how you saw a state representative. It was someone who was making the case that these social welfare programs should be provided by NGOs, not the government. Am I saying this right, Nichole?

Yes, there was a little bit of me trying to interpret what her campaign website said. Celia, what happened was I was driving and I saw a bumper sticker that I’d never seen before. It was this candidate’s name, and then the tagline was, “Make America like Texas.” I thought, “What does that mean?” I went home and googled the name and the slogan.

What I discovered was that this is a Texas rep and she was elected. Within what she describes as what she thinks is so great about Texas and what she wants to see more of is a small government. I know that that’s a relatively common conservative way of looking at government. Also, she believes that charitable organizations and NGOs are supposed to fill the gap. That’s a core part of her belief, and I thought that that’s really interesting, ideologically.

I think we get too caught up in big versus small government. It’s all relative. Texas is typically a high-need low service state. The question is, what’s a minimum standard? Do we want it to be a standard of deprivation or a standard where the expectation is people will have enough money to meet their basic needs and save for the future? I think that’s the standard we should be aiming for.

It’s about being a smart government or good government versus a big or small government. The second thing I’d say is that I think we need to be focused on the role of the private sector versus the role of government. By the private sector, I mean both nonprofits and businesses. We all have a role to play. The question is, what’s the right role for the nonprofit sector versus the role of the government?

When it comes to providing poor services and keeping people from going hungry, the nonprofit sector plays a critical role. The charitable food assistance network and food banks play an important role in keeping people from going hungry, but it is a supplementary role. We are not set up to feed people year-round.

That is a role that if people are in need of chronic food insecurity and need to have ongoing resources for food, the only way we are going to be able to meet that level of need is with programs like SNAP that everybody pays into and that everybody can draw from. I think one piece of social math that we use in the food bank network is that for every meal that food banks put on the table in Texas, SNAP puts nine meals on the table. That gives you a sense of the scope of what the charitable feeding system can do, versus the federal government programs like SNAP.

If people need ongoing resources for food, the only way we will meet that level of need is with programs like SNAP that everybody pays into and can draw from. Click To Tweet

I’m not trying to downplay the role of food banks because we distribute 800 million pounds of food a year, serve millions of Texans, and play a really important role in supplementing their resources. We were not set up to prevent a big problem like hunger on a big scale. I think there are other things that the nonprofit sector does well. I think the roles often should be devolved to the non-profit sector.

Thinking about our food banks, we are incredibly nimble and we can turn on a dime. When the pandemic hit, we had to pivot overnight in terms of how we reached people. We lost our volunteers. We lost a lot of our local distribution partners. We need to double virtually overnight. I think food banks did an incredible job pivoting and finding new ways to of meet that need. The government doesn’t pivot quickly with good reason.

I think that there are lots of regulations that even if not all of them make sense now, were typically all put there in the first place for a reason. It’s taxpayer money, so we have to be careful about how it’s spent. As a result of that, that does create so-called red tape. It’s hard for the government to move and shift quickly and nonprofits can. I think that’s another role that’s important for nonprofits to play.

We do a great job meeting local needs because we are entrenched in our communities in a way that government isn’t. One of the programs that we run for the food banks is a statewide SNAP application assistance program. SNAP is a federal program. It’s administered in Texas at the state level by state workers and they are under federal law. They have to be the ones to determine who gets the benefits.

The nonprofit private sector can’t play that role. We help people apply. We are able to provide one-on-one localized assistance that the state workers don’t have the time for it or aren’t necessarily in a good position to do. It’s a great partnership because it’s the state that says you are eligible or you are not, and here’s how much benefits you are eligible for. We understand the needs of local communities and can provide that additional support.

I think it would be good if we could walk through what that looks like for somebody who needs to apply for SNAP.

Fortunately, it’s gotten a lot better and easier over the years. That’s a real credit to Texas. In many ways, Texas is that good government state that I described. They were way ahead of the game when it came to using technology to help people access SNAP and other benefits. They are one of the first states to adopt the use of an electronic benefits card.

The reason SNAP used to be called food stamps is there were paper stamps that you would go redeem for food. It wasn’t that long ago that we were still using paper stamps. Texas was ahead of the game there and leveraging technology to modernize the program. For example, we had an online portal called YourTexasBenefits.com. It’s where people can go apply for benefits, renew their benefits, upload documentation, and check their eligibility. It’s an integrated eligibility system in Texas.

When you apply for SNAP, your application also will go through Medicaid, children’s health insurance, long-term care, and temporary assistance for needy families, which is the cash assistance program. That’s the good news and that’s made the program more accessible and easier to apply to for most people.

For people who struggle to use technology or don’t have access to a computer or the internet. Internet that is living in areas with limited Wi-Fi, which is a pretty big swath. Rural Texas gets posed challenges. It hasn’t necessarily become easier. I think it’s a very long and cumbersome application. Whether you are doing that online or on paper, it is a lot of questions and documentation.

It’s complicated to understand as a person applying for benefits when you add to that that someone is in a situation of crisis where they may not be thinking as clearly as they would otherwise. You have people who have cognitive disabilities, low literacy, language barriers, or anything else. It is a complicated program to access, which is why the food bank application assistance program is so important. It helps those people that might just give up or otherwise fall through the cracks, make it through the system.

GBTB - DFY Celia Cole | Feeding Texas
Feeding Texas: The Food Bank Assistance Program Application is important because it helps people that might give up or otherwise fall through the cracks make it through the system.

 

It sounds like you all come and help hold their hands and say, “We are going to work with you through this application and make it an easier process.”

Exactly. Just help them understand the rules and figure out what documentation they need to provide. This is a partnership we have with the state. We have a contract with the state to do this work. The goal is to submit a complete and accurate application on the first try. The benefit to the state then is, it lowers the amount of work and touches on the application that their workers have to do.

I’m just curious about how quickly people hear back if they are approved or not. Is it pretty quickly or do they have to wait a while?

The federal standard is you have 30 days to process an application and 7 days for what they call an emergency or an expedited application. That’s for people who literally have no money or resources for food. Someone coming out of the criminal justice system, someone who’s homeless, someone who is the only worker in the family has lost a job and there are no savings.

Their applications are expedited and the federal standard is seven days. We are not always able to meet those standards. For example, the state got hit by the same labor issues that everyone else did following the pandemic. They lost a lot of their staff and were struggling to build back up. During that time, people were often waiting months.

I think now the standard has gotten better, but people are still waiting longer than that 30-day standard to get benefits. That also leads to a higher need for a food charity. We see a lot of people who are waiting to get their applications processed. That can be super frustrating for someone that is in crisis. It can cause significant hunger if somebody has no money for food.

That’s helpful to know what is that gap, and then it continues on because you are waiting to see if you get approved or not. Something that I came across when I was researching food insecurity, and please correct me if I’m wrong. I think I read that 1 in 8 Texans is food insecure. Is that accurate?

That’s the most recent data, 1 in 8 Texans, and 1 in 5 five children struggle with food insecurity. It touches every state. There’s no one that escapes the potential for food insecurity or hunger. Definitely, certain populations are more likely to face hunger. We know that Black and Brown communities have higher rates of hunger. Seniors typically have higher rates of hunger. People living in rural areas, families with kids, immigrants, and people with language barriers.

GBTB - DFY Celia Cole | Feeding Texas
Feeding Texas: One in five children struggles with food insecurity. It touches every state. No one escapes the potential for food insecurity or hunger. But specific populations are more likely to face hunger.

 

This seems incredibly high to me and I feel like it’s not as top of mind in my everyday life as I wish it was. I get the sense that it’s maybe an invisible problem, invisible in the sense that the media doesn’t report on it as much, or because we sort of stay to our social economic groups. Maybe it’s because we don’t encounter it on an ongoing basis. It’s not top of mind. Would you say that’s accurate? Do you think the public consciousness realizes how many folks are on that razor’s edge?

I don’t think so. I definitely think that hunger became more visible during the pandemic. A lot of that was because the food banks were having to host mega distributions in very public places in Texas. It was convention centers, the Alamodome, and big malls’ parking lots. People saw the hunger in a way that they didn’t before. I think we definitely saw an increased awareness as a result of the pandemic.

People do tend to stick to their social class groups. If you have a decent living, middle-class standard living, or you are wealthy, it’s rare that you are going to be friends with people who don’t have any money. We tend to stick to people who think like us, look like us, and have a lifestyle like us. I think it’s that lack of awareness. It’s not like a lack of caring, but people don’t understand. It’s also hard to imagine in a country as wealthy as the United States that there are so many people living on the margins.

What have you found that’s been effective to bring awareness and awaken more people to the fact that there are a lot of Americans who are chronically struggling?

I think definitely relying on social media has been great as a way to increase awareness, particularly among younger people. You pointed out that the media doesn’t always cover it. They often cover it when it’s a crisis situation or when it’s bad news. It can often be reduced to an individual problem when the media covers it. That leads people to believe that it’s a problem that results from individual choices.

If someone worked harder or made better choices about how they spent their money or got an education, then we wouldn’t have this problem. What’s challenging to do is raise awareness of hunger as a systemic problem that has systemic causes. Therefore, it requires systemic solutions. If you think of it as an individual problem, then you are going to likely give to a food charity or a food bank.

You will think, “I can solve this. Communities can come together and solve the problem.” When you are able to make the case that it’s a much more systemic problem, then that’s when you can start talking about the big-picture solutions. I do think that social media has been great in terms of being able to reach more people with more effective messaging.

In the pandemic, I think that people seeing it made a big difference. One thing that we are focused on is not telling the story of people facing hunger, but inviting people to tell their own stories. Reaching out to people with lived experiences to say in their own words what’s going on. Also, to be part of informing the solutions. I think that’s been effective to get, particularly with policymakers. When they hear directly from someone, particularly if it’s a constituent that’s struggling with hunger and why. I think they are more likely to be aware of and care about the problem.

Do you think that there is an appetite among Texas lawmakers to consider systemic problems or issues around hunger?

I think right now, it’s challenging because the state is so polarized and people are challenged to come together and find consensus generally. It’s a difficult environment in which to find a compromise. I think that’s what government and democracy are all about. When you have people so isolated from each other feeling like they are coming from so far away. It’s really hard to come together and be able to forge that compromise or find that consensus.

I think right now, no. One of the things that social media can do is help democratize politics and make it more accessible to people. I started this conversation by saying that hunger was about unequal access to power. Democracy is about giving people access to power. The more that we can get people participating in the democratic process. The better chance we have that we will have decision-makers who are able to come together and be responsive to the needs of their constituents.

I know you touched on this a little bit earlier. It’s something we think a lot about this idea that Texas is the world’s ninth-largest economy. We are in the richest country in the world, yet 1 in 8 Texans is food insecure. What is keeping us from preventing hunger in Texas and US? It’s a real head-scratcher. Surely we have enough, right?

It’s about distribution. The food is unevenly distributed. People have uneven access to food. They have uneven access to the resources needed for food. The solution obviously has to start with those root causes. We have got lots of proven effective interventions to prevent hunger. I think SNAP and other federal nutrition programs are great examples.

The work that the food banks are doing particularly around produce access is another good example. We have got so much produce grown in Texas. We are one of the top ag-producing states in the nation, and a lot of that produce goes to waste either because market conditions aren’t right or the product itself is not pretty enough for the market but perfectly edible.

That is the source of food that is very cost-effective for food banks to rescue that surplus produce. It’s great nutrition for the people we serve. We are committed to making produce to be a bigger part of the food that we distribute because it is such an abundant supply. I think that’s a great way to reduce food waste and better distribute the agricultural resources. As I mentioned earlier, I’m over here at the Capitol. What we are talking about is funding to help us do that work.

I’m so glad that came up. That feels like a question like I don’t know what I don’t know feeling with what you just shared. Is there anything else that comes to mind like that it’s something that most of us wouldn’t even consider that you have bumped up across as potential solutions or things that people might not be aware of as some great issues to support and be behind?

We are always looking for solutions and better ways of doing what we do. I think the best thing to do is to look for what works already. Investing in things that we know and evidence-based interventions that work. We have to be constantly piloting new things. When we see something that works, putting the resources needed to scale it, I think that’s what we are working to do with our produce initiative.

For people who care about this issue lay people who aren’t working within the food bank network, lifting their voice, being aware, and understanding the importance of participating in a democratic process. It’s probably the best thing that people can do. Communities obviously do best when they come together around solutions.

Awareness and understanding of the importance of participating in the democratic process is the best thing people can do. Communities do best when they come together around solutions. Click To Tweet

The work that we are doing is to listen to people who are struggling with hunger and let them lead the way and tell us what they need and what the solutions are. I know one of the challenges food banks are facing or what we are solving for is figuring out how to better reach communities that are most in need. How can we achieve more equity in our work and find a way to distribute food to communities that are harder to reach?

We have done a lot of experimentation with new types of partnerships and ways of getting food to people through more mobile distribution. Reverses the churches, relying exclusively on local partners, finding ways to get food out to people more efficiently. When I started this work, I picked the nonprofit space because it felt like the only space to make a difference.

We have got more businesses and big corporations that understand that without a healthy and educated population, we don’t have a healthy and educated workforce and we can’t be prosperous economically. Big companies have come to realize that. In addition to donating to charity, whether it’s food or funds, they are rolling up their sleeves, partnering with nonprofits and government in those systemic solutions. I don’t know if you all are aware, but the second annual conference on hunger at the national level was hosted by the White House. One of the big things to come out of that was a significant commitment of private sector resources to support identifying those local solutions, but then also scaling them.

You are touching on this a little bit about the innovation that’s happening in the nonprofit space. Can you talk more? I think a food bank is like a stop-gap to help people get through that immediate need. Are there other ways that food banks are innovating to help teach a man to fish?

That’s been one of the big evolutions in food banking over the years. One is moving away from the non-perishable product to focusing on what food do people need to be healthy. The other big evolution has been what can we provide beyond food that will help people be able. Whether it’s self-sufficient or just being able to thrive.

GBTB - DFY Celia Cole | Feeding Texas
Feeding Texas: One of the big evolutions in food banking is moving away from non-perishable products to focusing on the food people need to be healthy.

 

A lot of food banks have invested in healthcare partnerships because we know that poor health is one of the downstream consequences of hunger. That can lead to a cycle where if you are unhealthy, you can’t work, and then you don’t have money for food, and you have to go to a food bank. Figuring out how to address the health consequences of hunger is one thing food banks have been doing beyond feeding people.

What we have recognized is the importance of partnerships. Hunger is obviously a very intersectional issue. We can’t be everything to everyone, but we can partner with other organizations in the community to help refer people who come needing food to other resources. Food or Hunger is a money problem, more than anything.

If someone is running out of food, it’s because they are running out of resources, which typically means they may need help with housing, health, or job training. We can’t provide that all but we are building strong referral systems where we can refer people out to the community for those additional resources. One thing that’s important to recognize about food banking and food distribution is that when we help alleviate that part of a family’s budget, by giving them food. That frees up their resources to pay for some of those other things. Figuring out how to flex the food bank muscle to help communities solve problems beyond hunger is also something that food banks can be thinking about.

We will take up a little bit more of your time and we like to end on hopeful notes. If you had a magic wand and you could change 1 or 2 things to nip this problem, what would that be?

Universal healthcare or maybe Universal childcare. We need to make sure that working parents can feed their kids and care for their kids. In order for that, we need to make sure those basic systems are in place. The universal living wage. It’s all of those things. If I could wave a magic wand, I would immediately make a huge difference in reducing hunger.

It’s unreal how expensive childcare is. I have a two-year-old. We spend like $1,200 a month. I’m like, “This is a lot for us and we are doing pretty good. How do other people do this?” No wonder birth rates are down. Kids are expensive. Lastly, what’s making you hopeful?

Probably the people I work with. I have a team of about 22 staff. I feel like they are an inspiration every day. Their passion for the work and their creativity. I think we are a very collaborative network. I would definitely say it’s the people doing this work, the people I’m surrounded by, whom I’m learning from, and whom I get to lead. That’s definitely what gives me hope.

We appreciate your dedication. I made it sound like that was the end. There’s actually one more part. The last part of our show is our intention mentions just to lighten it up a little bit where we mention something that has our attention, like a show, an article, or an event. Maybe something that’s happened and experienced. Does anything come to mind? Have you seen a great show that helps you clear the slate at the end of the day?

Something that’s mindless and helps to remove me and I have to admit, for many years now, I have been binge-watching The Walking Dead. I love zombie movies and zombie shows. It’s funny that I would say the things that are about the apocalypse or dystopia take me away from reality. It sometimes feels like with the pandemic in particular we have been living through an apocalypse. Very mindless things are the things that I’d like to unplug from at the end of the day.

I will add to that. I have been watching The Last of Us.

That’s next on my list as soon as I’m done with The Walking Dead. Is that good?

It’s really good. If you are okay waiting, the hard part is what comes out every Sunday, so you got to wait. When I started watching it, three episodes were out so I was able to binge a little bit. I started watching this and we had our power outage here in Austin. It was weird because it’s like, “Why would I want to watch this intense stressful thing when I’m living through an intense stressful thing, and yet that did the trick for some reason?”

The thing I find most interesting about zombie movies or post-apocalyptic societies is human behavior and how humans come together either to destroy each other or to form new societies. I just think that’s fascinating.

Yes. This show really digs into that in a fascinating way. They really get into the human side of the zombie outbreak.

The zombies are just the background. It’s really about humans. Sometimes we can learn from it, too. When you are faced with survival needs, what are the ways that people can come together and be supportive? I know that I always say in the food banking world that we are at our best when things are at their worst. The going gets tough when the tough gets going. During times of disaster or big crisis is when our network is at its best, coming together, sharing, collaborating, and thinking globally.

A big crisis is when our network is at its best coming together, sharing, collaborating, and thinking globally. Click To Tweet

How about you, Nichole? What’s on your mind?

I’m going to totally change gears. I love that you guys are doing these deep things. This is going to be a little bit roundabout. Married at First Sight Australia is a favorite, but when I watched it, I got a little too emotionally invested. I have learned that the way for me to watch it is to watch a YouTuber recap it. He’s Australian and hilarious and his name is Wilko. It’s Rehashed with Wilko on YouTube who is recapping Married at First Sight Australia. It will crack you up. If you need a deep belly laugh, he’s your guy. That’s what I have been watching.

I’m writing this down. It’s like Master Pancake.

It’s an escape. It’s fun and silly.

We share this in our episode notes so people can go back and be like, “What was that thing?” I actually get a lot of great content from our attention mentions. When I’m surfing and like, “What to watch? What Nichole told me to watch.” Nichole always has great stuff.

I had to stop buying books because I’m behind on catching up to read them. From these attention mentions, I have had a bit moratorium.

Yeah, I have a big stack next to my bed, too.

We will get to those. Thank you again, Celia, for your time. As a reminder, if anyone’s at South by Southwest, come see our panel which will be on March 13th, 2023. We’ll have that on our social media. We would love to continue this conversation because it’s important to bring attention to food insecurity in Texas. It’s a problem. It’s been a problem. What can we do to fix it? Now is the time. Let’s get some solutions.

Thank you both so much. Claire and Nichole, I look forward to meeting you guys both in person next time.

Yes. We can’t wait.

Hopefully, we have demystified some little portion of Texas politics and we hope that you will do more with us. Let’s join together and do more. We hope you will let us know what is working and we hope you will join us in the next episode. Thanks, everybody, and have a good one.

 

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About Celia Cole

GBTB - DFY Celia Cole | Feeding TexasCelia is the CEO of Feeding Texas, the state association of food banks. We work collaboratively with the 21 food banks in our network to ensure adequate nutritious food for all Texans, improve the health and financial stability of the communities we serve, and engage all stakeholders in advocating for hunger solutions.

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