“I relate to what it means to not have food,” says Lluvia Flores. She’s sitting across from us at Luke’s Ice House on Durham, a fresh-faced woman sipping water and telling stories of her north side childhood. She talks of her years at Milby High School, and the year-and-a-half period when her father lost his job and she and her family were forced to make use of a local food bank.
“I could always count on them, that they would give us a bag of food—rice, beans, the basics. To us that was our main meal,” remembers Flores, who is now a youth minister at the First Ward’s Impact Houston Church of Christ. “They never said no.” Still, it was a hard time for her father. “Maybe it’s just cultural,” she says. “It’s hard to be like, ‘I had a job, I can get a job, but there is no job.’ For him it was kind of embarrassing. But the way they provided it, it never felt like, ‘oh, this is embarrassing.’”
As Flores recalls those difficult days, she periodically looks up at the brown-haired man drinking a Miller Lite next to her. He is Brian Greene, the CEO of the Houston Food Bank, which is the largest of its kind in America, both in terms of its size and how much food it distributes. Impact is a distribution point for the food bank, which is to say that both Greene and Flores have much in common. The paths of both have led them to the delicate business of giving away free food—directly or indirectly—in a country that considers taking free food to be the ultimate humiliation. And yet the two have never met.
“I never lived in a safe environment, and my kids don’t live in a safe environment,” Flores says, talking about how she relates to the young people she counsels. Greene listens, rapt, and orders another beer. He seems more interested in Flores’s story than his own, but she’s just as interested in his—how he spent years running the Second Harvest Food Bank of Greater New Orleans and Acadiana before accepting the Houston job. In 2005. Right before Katrina hit. Needless to say, Greene’s departure was delayed.
“It was nothing but failure, when you looked at how bad the need was,” he says. “Everybody fell short. If you don’t feel guilt and remorse after Katrina, it’s because you weren’t responsible for much.” His volunteers were hard hit, and so was he. “It was months before I could sleep through the night without sleeping pills. I had never taken anything like that in my life.”
Flores nods in agreement as Greene talks about the staggering amount of hunger, the sheer number of those without food. “Need outstrips you.” Flores nods again.
Neither being the morose type, however, soon Flores and Greene are laughing about some of the wackier donations the food bank receives, many of them products that haven’t caught on in the market.
“We get the failures,” says Greene, things like lime-flavored Wheat Thins and pickle-juice popsicles. He’s grateful for donations, of course, although he admits that his first words upon opening a box are often “Dude, what were you thinking?”
Flores laughs and mentions a friend she and Greene have in common, David Beegle, who works at Impact and has an affinity for some of the weirder donations.
“He’ll come into staff meetings, and we’re like, ‘David, who would eat that?’ He says, ‘Come on guys, it’s not that bad.’” And as much as Flores hates to admit it, some of the food bank’s younger patrons actually prefer the stranger foods. “I’m like, I’m not even going to tell him,” she says, grinning.
Get involved at houstonfoodbank.org