Stretching every family’s meal
By Lauren Kirchner
October 1, 2009
A group of people holding colorful pieces of numbered paper waited patiently on the basement steps of Our Lady of Lourdes Church on West 142nd Street at 1 p.m. on Wednesday. They were lining up early; the food pantry below the church wouldn’t start giving out bags of food until an hour later. Inside, 50 grocery bags of food had been placed on a long wooden table. Everyone who came in would receive the same thing: cereal, milk, dried lentils, canned beans and tomatoes, tuna, dry pasta, fresh collard greens, onions, sweet potatoes, bananas and bread.
The fresh food comes from organizations such as City Harvest and the Food Bank for New York City, and the pantry also has a small budget of $6,000 a year from Catholic Charities USA for canned and dry foods. The pantry’s manager, Thomas Collins (“if you want to be funny, you could say, Tom Collins, like the drink”) said with pride that the pantry wouldn’t let people go away hungry, “especially families.” If someone shows up after the pantry runs out of bags, the volunteers find something to give him or her from the surplus closet.
Ann Dozier, the assistant manager, added, “We try to get at least three meals in each bag, with both protein and vegetables.” That is the church’s goal, but Renet Malte, 61, originally from Santo Domingo, who was picking up food for himself, his wife, and his two grandchildren this week, said that he usually makes the pantry’s food last seven to eight days.
Our Lady of Lourdes is one of approximately 1,200 food pantries and soup kitchens in New York City, all of which have been hit hard by the economic downturn of the past year. According to an “Annual Hunger Survey” by the New York City Coalition Against Hunger (NYCCAH), an advocacy group that regularly surveys the city’s food pantries and soup kitchens, 87 percent of these food distribution points reported feeding an increased number of people in 2008 than in 2007, and 55 percent said that the number increased “greatly.” The survey also shows that 69 percent of food pantries and soup kitchens reported not having enough food to fill demand, which was up from 59 percent the previous year.
Overall, the number of New Yorkers having difficulty affording food on a regular basis in 2008 was estimated at approximately four million people, according to the website of the Food Bank of New York, an organization that provides food to many of these distribution points. That number has doubled from two million just five years earlier, and the trend is continuing into 2009 as well.
“We were hit hard last September,” Collins says, referring to the fall of 2008 when the national economy collapsed. In years past, the pantry would give out food to about 50 people, once a month. As more people started coming, the pantry staff devised a new system of registering people and dividing them into a color-coded schedule to meet the increased need. Each group comes in on one Wednesday per month, and now Our Lady of Lourdes feeds at least 50 different families each week, 200 families a month.
Another, larger food pantry, the West Side Campaign Against Hunger (WSCAH) on West 86th Street, has also seen a huge spike in the number of families coming in for food. In the 2009 fiscal year, WSCAH has served over 34,000 families, which is a 27 percent increase over the previous year. It has also seen a 49 percent increase in the number of new families coming in. Holly Park, WSCAH’s program director, said in an interview at the food pantry that she expects the numbers to keep going up in 2010. “The number of seniors has gone up the most because of the aging of the baby boom generation,” Park said, “and we expect that to rise.”
Terence Kelly, an outreach consultant at the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, agreed that the economic crisis of the past year has put a strain on food providers, as more and more people need food aid. “In the past 12 to 14 months, it’s just been through the roof,” he said in an interview in his office. The overcrowding of food pantries and the increased federal stimulus funding to state food stamp programs are two reasons that Kelly gave for why NYCCAH encourages families to enroll in food stamp assistance rather than just rely on pantries. According to the Food Bank for New York City, 700,000 New Yorkers are eligible for, but not enrolled in, the Food Stamp Program, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). SNAP works by automatically putting money into special debit accounts each month that families can use with like debit cards at participating grocery stores and farmer’s markets.
Kelly blamed an arduous application process for the low enrollment in SNAP, a process that involves a pile of paperwork and getting fingerprinted. “These people are underserved for a reason,” he said. “They can’t just take off half a day of work to go into a food stamps office, and then go back to get fingerprinted another day.” Although applicants can check their eligibility online, they still have to fill out a paper copy in person, and it often takes weeks for the forms to be processed.
At West Side Campaign Against Hunger, Park said that most of the families they serve do not take advantage of food stamps (only 34 percent, according to available data), perhaps because they are not aware that they are eligible, or perhaps because, as Kelly said, they are intimidated by the application process. Even though applicants’ fingerprints are not cross-referenced with any immigration databases or criminal records, Park said, “There are a lot of myths in the immigrant community.” Many food pantry clients are immigrants, who fear that somehow using a federal system will prevent them from getting green cards or bringing their families to America, Park said.
The St. Nicholas food stamp office on West 125th Street has tile floors and light hospital-green walls. During a visit to the office one Thursday afternoon, a waiting room full of people looked up at an LED screen, waiting for their number to blink on so they step up to the desk to have their pile of application papers processed. The office’s institutional, DMV-like atmosphere was a sharp contrast to local church-basement food pantries like Our Lady of Lourdes or the West Side Campaign Against Hunger. The neighborhood atmosphere and personal attention that the pantries provide are perhaps another reason why local families would forgo food stamps and continue to wait in patient crowds at Harlem’s food pantries.
On the positive side, Park said that she has seen a lot of success in enrolling eligible families in SNAP when the city’s Human Resources Administration staff comes to WSCAH and registers people there directly, so that no one has to go to the bureaucratic, and often intimidating, government office. “A lot of people feel comfortable here already, and so if they can apply here, it’s a win-win.” And the numbers back her up: since an HRA agent has started coming to the pantry in the past year, enrollment in food stamps in Park’s clients has gone up 715 percent. In New York overall, enrollment is up, too; a fact-sheet on the New York City Human Resources Administration website says that more than 1.54 million New Yorkers were receiving food stamps as of July of this year, up from 1.26 million in July 2008. Park hopes that this trend will continue: not that more people will need food stamp assistance, but that those who are eligible for help will begin to receive it.