Less Food, More Demand Means Deeper Fix Needed

Hunger in New York City has become so acute that a solution beyond food pantries and soup kitchens must be found, advocates say.

By: By Tram Whitehurst

Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen in Chelsea claims the unwanted distinction of running the largest lunch feeding operation for the needy in the country. Serving nearly 1,200 meals each weekday, the program is bigger than at any other time in HASK’s 25-year history. At the same time, federal funding for its $2.5 million annual program has dropped to the lowest level in years. Emergency food programs across the city are grappling with similar unprecedented challenges as they confront greater demand combined with fewer or inadequate resources.

The numbers are staggering. About 1.3 million New Yorkers—or roughly one in six residents—currently rely on emergency food programs to eat, according to the New York City Coalition Against Hunger (NYCCAH). Since 2004, that’s an increase of 24 percent in reliance on EFPs, as they’re known, according to a recent report by the Food Bank for New York City. At the same time, the amount of food received by the Food Bank, which supplies more than 1,000 local food pantries and soup kitchens, is the lowest in 20 years. Federal food aid has been cut in half, and overall supplies are down 12 million pounds just since 2004. EFPs are open an average of one day less per week than only a few years ago, and 12 percent of pantries and kitchens can’t even open every week.

Most of the food shortage has been caused by a holdup in passage of the mammoth federal Farm Bill, covering everything from crop subsidies to biofuel programs – and public nutrition. The U.S. Senate reached a deal last week that could allow the passage for the bill, including The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP). But even TEFAP's food supply has dropped by nearly 80 percent in recent years.The severity of the current emergency food shortage highlights the need to broaden the approach to hunger in New York City, some advocates and public officials say.

“The response to hunger must be about having a response to poverty,” said Aine Duggan, vice president of government relations, policy and research at the Food Bank. While advocates strongly support measures to bring more food into the system immediately – “People don’t eat in the long term,” says NYCCAH executive director Joel Berg – they also maintain that the hunger problem will not be solved by increased emergency food funding alone. “This is a problem that has been systemic,” says Anthony Jordan, president and CEO of St. Benedict the Moor Center in the Bronx, a food pantry that’s now open only one day a week, down from two to three days a week in previous years.

Many EFPs in New York City now connect clients with additional programs and services, such as legal assistance, counseling, and benefits like the Earned Income Tax Credit and food stamps. According to Food Bank, food stamp enrollment among EFP clients increased from 31 percent in 2004 to 46 percent in 2007. Overall, the number of New Yorkers receiving food stamps has increased by 318,899 people since 2002, increasing the total dollar value of the benefit by $43 million, the Coalition Against Hunger reported.
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But EFP directors argue that the focus should not only be on increasing enrollment in the program, but on increasing the dwindling buying power of food stamps. The minimum monthly food stamp award is $10 for all family sizes. The maximum is $155 for a family of 1, $284 for a family of 2, $408 for a family of 3, and $518 for a family of 4. Food Bank statistics show that among EFP households receiving food stamps, 24 percent run out of their monthly allocation within one week, 60 percent run out after two weeks and 84 percent run out by the third week, leading them to turn to food pantries and soup kitchens for their meals. In short, says Duggan, “The food stamp benefit is inadequate.”

What’s more, the application process for food stamps is still overly burdensome, argues City Councilmember Bill de Blasio, chairman of Council’s general welfare committee. Last month he proposed an emergency hunger plan for the city that would increase online applications for food stamps, simplify the recertification process and eliminate the fingerprinting requirement. Robert Doar, commissioner of the city’s Human Resources Administration (HRA) which oversees food stamp administration, testified that out of 1.1 million food stamp cases, only 31 instances of fraud were discovered through the use of fingerprints, at a total cost of $800,000. Food stamp fraud is not the big issue people think it is, said de Blasio spokesperson Jean Weinberg, so the HRA needs to “stop criminalizing the food stamp process.”

The city and state have responded to the extreme shortage of emergency food by pledging to increase the funds available to purchase supplies. The city gave $1 million to more than 500 EFPs through the HRA’s Emergency Food Assistance Program. New York state is offering $5 million more to EFPs throughout the state, $2 million of which will go directly to city providers. “The city and state really stepped up to the plate to take care of an emergency,” said Duggan.

Many city food providers have increased efforts to solicit donations and are actively lobbying local elected officials to make sure the emergency food shortage is a political priority.

Several EFPs said they are just now starting to see an increase in individual donations and volunteerism. “Food Bank has benefited from the response of individual donors and corporate donors to the reports of the nationwide food shortage,” noted Food Bank spokeswoman Carol Schneider. Food Bank received three matching grants this fall, and fundraising is up by 39% over this time last year (though food donations are down). Similarly, Jordan said he’s seen a recent spike in the number of volunteers at his food pantry and soup kitchen.

City Harvest recently announced “The Million Pound Pledge,” its effort to provide one million additional pounds of food to EFPs by the end of the year. “The hope is that this will help soften the impact that agencies are feeling because of government cuts,” said Stephens. Just a few weeks ago City Harvest rescued 700,000 pounds of unwanted food from sources like restaurants and groceries; the goal is to deliver four million pounds of food during the campaign.

Despite these efforts, the effects of the ongoing food shortage are all too clear to EFPs and the people they serve. At St. Benedict the Moor Center in the Bronx several months ago, according to Jordan, the food pantry was able to provide clients with three days worth of meals, but now clients are lucky to get one day’s worth of food. The situation was exacerbated in October when the Department of Homeless Services announced a new policy eliminating overnight shelter for families previously found ineligible. “We’re two blocks away from PATH, so we’ve had to open the soup kitchen at nights to feed people denied shelter,” said Jordan.

And it’s not just the homeless or unemployed who now rely on food pantries and soup kitchens, say EFP directors. They are seeing an increasing number of working people, even homeowners. Advocates say the sharp increase in the number of residents accessing EFPs partly reflects the broader economic picture. “Poor people in New York City are often the canary in the coal mine in terms of economic downturns,” said Elizabeth G. Maxwell, program director at HASK.

Perhaps the single most important factor driving the increased demand for emergency food is the rising cost of living in New York City. Low-income New Yorkers “can’t keep pace with increased housing costs, heating costs and food costs,” said Duggan. For example, food costs have increased 10 percent in the past year, and renters who use food pantries and soup kitchens pay an average of 59 percent of their monthly income on rent, according to the Food Bank. That's compared to the traditional U.S. rule of thumb that about 33 percent of a family's income should go toward rent.

Although the critical Farm Bill may soon be passed, federal support provided through its subsidiary, TEFAP, has declined in recent years. The “bonus commodity” provision of TEFAP, through which the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture purchases surplus food from American farmers, has been especially hard-hit. On a national level, the program provided $67 million worth of emergency food to states in 2007, just 21 percent of the $319 million provided in 2002, according to the nonprofit TEFAP Alliance. The USDA says heavy demand for agricultural products is to blame for this drop in federal support.

“We need a strong nutrition title in the Farm Bill and we need it passed this year,” Food Bank president and CEO Dr. Lucy Cabrera said in a statement.

Ernest Waller, who lunched on Spanish beef and rice on Thursday at Holy Apostles, feels the benefits of an emergency food program that’s still operating full steam ahead – to the chagrin, ironically, of staffers who thought it would have disappeared by now from disuse.

Waller, 55, used to be homeless in Chelsea, but has found a home in the Bronx. He still returns to the church on Ninth Avenue at 28th Street to fill his stomach. “If it wasn’t for the church, I would have no place to go,” he said.

- Tram Whitehurst