As food banks see increased need, United converts cargo facilities into food distribution centers

Written by on April 19, 2020

United(HOUSTON) — Amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, a Houston-based United employee who usually handles baggage is now leading a companywide effort to transform empty cargo facilities into food distribution centers.

In Houston, the food bank is currently “working at 150%,” according to spokesperson Paula Murphy.

The nonprofit, which covers 18 counties in Southeast Texas, went from distributing between 400,000 to 500,000 pounds of food per day prior to the COVID-19 outbreak to distributing 750,000 pounds at a minimum.

The Houston food bank had put in a request for 400 members of the National Guard to help them with distribution, and some of their partners that had given them space in the past — soup kitchens and food pantries — were forced to close their doors due to the virus.

The food bank ran a television advertisement asking for help, and five-year United employee Mark Zessin took note.

While the need for food continued to increase at the food bank, demand for travel in the U.S. reached record lows. Zessin noticed many of his fellow employees at George Bush Intercontinental Airport had extra down time at work as the number of travelers dwindled.

“They were quickly running out of room, and it was a challenge to find volunteers given the stay-at-home orders,” Zessin told ABC News. “I thought we may have some assets they could use.”

This week Zessin’s vision became a reality at the airport — hundreds of United employees from all departments are now sorting, packaging and distributing up to 6,000 relief packages to families in need in Houston every day.

“Mark is too humble to say this, but he has led these efforts,” Houston airport United Communications Manager David Gonzalez said. “This wasn’t the only idea Mark brought forth, but it’s the biggest one so far.”

Zessin is also working on organizing a blood drive and next week he plans on hand delivering thank you cards to health care workers. The Houston project has been so successful United said it is working to open a second distribution center at its cargo facility in San Francisco.

President and CEO of the Houston Food Bank Brian Greene said they would not forget the generosity, especially given the “particularly trying times for United Airlines and their almost 100,000 employees” as the airlines continue to take an unprecedented financial hit.

“You get up in the morning and try to make a difference,” Zessin said. “We all do.”

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