July 11, 2003, 10:12PM

Food bank busy amid lean times

Hard-hit families need to put food on table


At a time when financial support continues to lag, the Houston Food Bank has seen a 45 percent surge in demand for services over the past 10 months, agency officials said.

And if unemployment continues to rise in Houston, the relief agency expects the need for the fresh and canned food it distributes to area food pantries to outstrip the previous year.

Brenda Kirk, food bank executive director, blamed the increase on unemployment, layoffs, companies cutting back work hours and the effects of 9-11.

"Oftentimes, the community thinks the food bank is only out there serving the population who are homeless," Kirk said. "But most of those who access food from food pantries are working-class families, who may be working 40 hours but not making a living wage."

They are not alone. According to the food bank, a series of corporate layoffs has forced some middle-class families, including some former Enron employees, to go to local pantries to put food on the table.

"If they are drawing unemployment, or had a severance package, they can hold things together for a while," Kirk said. "But down the road, bills start to pile up and they find themselves in a very tight situation."

To help meet the need, the agency is relying on volunteers and partnerships, including one with the local produce industry -- Houston Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association.

"They have stepped up and made sure we have good supplies of food," Kirk said. "By our standards, that is especially important because we know fresh fruits and vegetables provide the highest quality of nutritional value."

The partnership between the local food bank, food suppliers and wholesalers has changed the way the nation's food relief agencies buy, gather and distribute fresh food, according to America's Second Harvest, a national network of food banks and food rescue organizations.

Dry and canned goods are a food bank staple, but they don't provide the same nutritional value as the quantities of fresh food donated by produce association members.

Kirk credits Warren Brice, director of food solicitation and donor relations, who was a produce merchandiser for Kroger stores in Texas and Louisiana for 30 years, with getting the successful program off the ground about 15 years ago.

Brice changed the way the food bank collects, buys and distributes fresh food, making it more efficient and easier for the produce industry to make food available to the agency.

"We were one of the first food banks to get into produce," Brice said, standing in the midst of the controlled chaos of the food bank loading dock off the Eastex Freeway.

"We probably handle more fresh produce than any other food bank in the country," he said.

One morning, the food bank warehouse was a flurry of activity, as people from participating charitable groups wheeled flat-bed carts of fresh produce, dry goods and other food to waiting vans and trucks.

A sheen of sweat covered Pete Abalos' face as he loaded bags of potatoes into the Harris County Community Services AFL-CIO van.

"We give out emergency assistance three times a week to about 4,000 people a year, but that number is growing by 80 to 100 people a month," said Abalos, union pantry co-director.

The group provides emergency assistance for families in need of short-term hunger relief, like when a wage-earner is laid off or had to take a pay cut.

The food bank serves more than 200,000 people a month through 500 charities in an 18-county area, with roughly 85 percent of recipients in the city of Houston.

Charitable organizations swamp the food bank's walk-in cooler like ants on a picnic basket twice a week. The agency distributed 3.1 million pounds of produce last year to such organizations as the union food pantry and St. Agnes Baptist Church.

Each day, the food bank generates a list of the fresh food available in the cooler. Recently, the list included lettuce, cauliflower, watermelon and cabbage.

In the summer, strawberries, cantaloupe, asparagus, red potatoes and raspberries are plentiful. Some of the produce will find its way to Linda Simmons' table.

Simmons, 58, who was forced to leave her job because of a heart condition, is on a fixed income. She goes to her church pantry on Fridays.

"We don't know what they are going to bring until the truck comes," she said from her home. "But I'm going to tell you something: They don't close the door until the last person has been served."

Back at the food bank, another wave of people backed up to the loading dock as Abalos drove off in the union food pantry's van.

Food bank officials said they expected the cooler, which was stacked floor to ceiling with fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy and juice, to be empty by the end of the day.


 Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle

  July 11, 2003, 9:14PM

Jobless rate rising rapidly for blacks

Workers in factories hit hardest


 Unemployment among blacks is rising at a faster pace than in any similar period since the mid-1970s, and the jobs lost have been mostly in manufacturing, where the pay for blacks has traditionally been higher than in many other fields.

Nearly 2.6 million jobs have disappeared over the past 28 months, which began with a brief recession that has faded into a weak recovery. Nearly 90 percent of those lost jobs were in manufacturing, according to government data, with blacks hit disproportionately harder than whites. At the same time, jobless black Americans have been unusually persistent about staying in the labor force. Having landed millions of jobs in the booming 1990s, they have continued to look for new ones in the soft economy, and so are counted now as unemployed; if they gave up trying to find work, they would not be counted.

These two phenomena help to explain why the black unemployment rate is rising twice as fast as that of whites, and faster than in any downturn since the 1970s recession. Low-wage workers and women who went from welfare to work in the 1990s largely have kept their jobs; factory breadwinners have borne the pain.

"The number of jobs and the types of jobs that have been lost has severely diminished the standing of many blacks in the middle class," said William Lucy, president of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists.

In Indianapolis, Autoliv, a Swedish manufacturer of seat belts, is closing a plant and laying off 350 workers, more than 75 percent of them blacks.

It is not only the recently hired who are losing jobs. So are tens of thousands of textile workers in the South, many with longer tenure, as production in the industry shifts to China and India. Bruce Raynor, president of Unite, the union that represents textile workers, ticked off a few of the more recent losses: 1,000 jobs lost in the last two years as mills closed in Roanoke Rapids, N.C.; another 1,000 in mill closings in Columbus, Ga.; 1,500 lost in the closing of a sweatshirt factory in Martinsville, Va.

The laid-off workers are mostly blacks who were earning $11 an hour plus benefits in small towns where other jobs, if there are any, do not pay as well.

"This is not like the cyclical downturns in the old days, when you got furloughed for a few weeks and then recalled," said Jared Bernstein, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute. "These jobs are gone, and that represents a potentially significant slide in living standards."


 Copyright 2003 New York Times

  The Harris County AFL-CIO Council is a Partner in the TIGAAR outreach project and the Justice and Equality in the Workplace Program that reaches out to the Hispanic Immigrant community.

July 31, 2003, 11:47PM

Outreach effort informs Asians of workplace rights


Two years ago, several Latin American consulates, federal agencies and civil rights groups joined to encourage Hispanic immigrants, including those without proper working papers, to report workplace violations.

The billboards, which advertised a central telephone number to call for help, generated hundreds of tips for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Labor Department's Wage and Hour Division, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

In fact, as a direct result of the tips, the Labor Department collected $1.3 million in back wages for 2,033 employees, while the EEOC sued an environmental company that refused to hire Hispanic women, as well as a recycling company on behalf of 98 Hispanic workers.

And the calls about workplace safety resulted in eight OSHA inspections that uncovered 25 safety violations and penalties of $67,100.

Now the EEOC, which initially put together the Justice and Equality Project for Latinos, has launched a similar outreach effort for Asian-Americans in Houston. It hired a writer and producer, recruited "actors" and put together a 23-minute video that describes common employment discrimination and wage, hour and safety violations.

One vignette features two Asians talking in Mandarin while they're working. The mean-looking "boss" -- who's really an EEOC investigator when he isn't in front of a camera -- tells the "employees" that they must speak English because they could be "plotting something, like a labor strike or something."

Other vignettes feature "bosses" making racial slurs and "employees" complaining among themselves that they aren't getting the correct amount of overtime or that their factory isn't properly ventilated.

The film will be shown at Asian community centers during citizenship classes and English classes, as well as before employer groups. The EEOC hopes to translate the video into Vietnamese and Mandarin to broaden the audience.

The Information Group for Asian American Rights, or TIGAAR, also is putting up 55 billboards across the city telling Asians to "know your rights." Clear Channel Outdoor donated the billboard space.

The agencies wanted to reach out to a community that doesn't traditionally ask for help, said H. Joan Ehrlich, acting director of the office of Congressional and Legislative Affairs in Washington, D.C., and the longtime district director of the EEOC's Houston office.

Part of that reluctance to come forward is cultural, because they don't want to be seen as complaining, Ehrlich said. And many Asians don't trust the government, she said.

Raymond Wong, national president of the Organization of Chinese Americans, reminded the video's viewers that when the group brought complaints to the EEOC that a large Houston employer was failing to promote qualified Asians, the agency investigated.

As a result, the company changed its performance appraisal system and paid the employees $1 million.

The reluctance to come forward also has become complicated by the post-Sept. 11 environment in which some Asians have become targets of discrimination, Ehrlich said.

Mari Okabayashi, past president of the Houston Chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League, one of oldest Asian-American civil rights organizations in the nation, said that one of the biggest problems Asians face is that they aren't getting the promotions they deserve.

Okabayashi, who has a nonspeaking role in the video, said the glass ceiling, or "sticky floor," is prevalent enough that Asians need to know their rights.

Asians are one of the fastest-growing immigrant groups, but many don't know the employment laws, especially new immigrants who don't realize there is help out there, she said.

Asian immigrants also need to know that they can't be forced to exclusively speak English at work.

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 Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle