(Note: Community navigator Ericka Bowman contributed to this blog)
It is hard enough living in a food desert. Add a global pandemic, interruptions in normal public transit, and a shortage of essential items, and the struggle can become dangerous or even deadly.
The USDA describes food deserts as neighborhoods with limited choice and access to healthy food. Research shows that if you are a person of color and earn a low income, you are more likely to have trouble finding healthy food near where you live.
As mentioned on the blog earlier, Texas Housers heard from tenants living in subsidized apartments in Houston and Gavleston that the lack of food access during this health crisis is grinding. Grocery stores are far away, buses aren’t running normally, corner store and dollar store supplies are running short, and informal mobile grocery stores are advertising food and supplies at a significant mark-up.
People with a credit card and money in the bank can buy groceries online and pick them up at curbside or have them delivered. But if you benefit from SNAP (food stamps), there’s no way to use those same services in Texas.
Technically, there is a way. The USDA started a SNAP online purchasing program last year and has since chosen several states as testing sites, including Florida, Alabama, Nebraska, and Iowa among others. The program is still being piloted, but given the grave circumstances of Covid-19, states have requested to take part and have been granted access. Tenants living in subsidized housing in Houston and Gavleston trying to use their SNAP benefits while staying healthy and safe have asked the governor to request similar actions.
Their letter, sent this week, is below.
Dear Governor Abbott,
There are 3.3 million SNAP beneficiaries in Texas, including children and the elderly, who will benefit from this request we are asking of you today.
We are minimum wage workers who risk our lives daily to provide needed services to those in our cities during these difficult times. We are single mothers who have been laid off and are unable to buy groceries. We are the elderly and disabled, depending on the lifeline of public assistance.
The White House asks the nation to practice social distancing. They even have recommended that citizens look into ordering groceries online to prevent contact with the virus.
But the unfortunate truth is that SNAP beneficiaries are unable to abide by this request, as much as we want to. Current state regulations prevent businesses from accepting SNAP payments online. This includes stores with at-home delivery such as H-E-B, Kroger, Walmart and Amazon.
And many of us, especially the elderly and disabled, do not have adequate transportation during this pandemic. Under normal circumstances, we depend on public transit or the assistance of others to buy food. But due to the virus, public transportation has stopped running in some areas and has decreased in most. So we have to depend on local convenience stores or dollar stores to provide for our families, because they are the only stores in our area. And even those stores no longer have the vital needs for survival.
To make things worse, in recent weeks we have been preyed upon by money-hungry “mobile grocery stores” coming into our community. Yes, they also accept SNAP, but they are price gouging and taking advantage of our desperation. Some of us have paid 3 to 4 times in markup from the regular price for essentials like eggs, bread, and water because we have no alternative. In the middle of this pandemic, people are also starving.
Seeing our plight, an advocate who works in our community picked up a few residents and took us to her neighborhood 15 to 20 miles away, where grocery stores flourish with food items that we never see. We wish we this kind of access to basic essentials where we live. While we search in despair for any food we can obtain for our families, there are ample resources in other areas and we need your help to access them.
The power to change this is in your hands, Governor Abbott. We are asking you today to step in during this critical time, and request the Health and Human Services Commission allow the citizens of Texas to participate in the USDA’s SNAP Online Purchasing Pilot Program. Other states, including Alabama, Iowa, New York, Oregon and Washington have already done this.
In the middle of this pandemic, people are starving. Please give us the ability to take advantage of online purchasing and delivery. It will help save lives. It will not only promote social distancing, but give us access to retailers outside the communities we reside in. Supermarkets want our business and we want to buy.
There have been 45 state legislators who have signed a letter requesting that you provide this support.
Today we ask you directly. We are in need of assistance, and we want to do our part to end this pandemic.
Lanell Lincoln, Galveston
Janey Williams, Houston
Chelsea Williams, Houston Daija Jackson, Galveston
Tina Harris, Galveston
Jessica Blanks, Galveston
Carlita Johnson, Galveston
Sharon Johnson, Galveston
Mishko Kluthe, Galveston
Breonna Gray, Galveston
Darlyn Wells, Galveston
Johnetta Julien, Galveston
Lanell Lincoln, Galveston
Larry Brooks, Galveston
Sharon Horn, Galveston
Deon Washington, Houston
Cheryl Potts, Houston
Terry Potts, Coppertree
Courtney Ware, Houston
Jamie Wazaki, Houston
Janella Smith, Houston
Jeanne Ware, Houston
Kenetra Hopkins, Houston
Kimberly Kelly, Houston
Lapordra Woods, Houston
Mistura Olusanya, Houston
Stephany Winn, Houston
Tinisia Williams, Houston
Vernita Smith, Houston
Loretta Gulley, Houston
Sharobin White, Houston
Kamanisha Myles, Houston
Shelisha Adams, Houston
Tanisiah Coachman, Houston