Making ends meet on a tight budget is a difficult task for any cook. But when there are 500 to 700 mouths to feed every day, it becomes even trickier.
Akanni Demazio, 29, is doing just that. He has been a chef at Food Bank for New York City’s community kitchen in Harlem for the past four years, but this year, he has had to put his culinary skills to the test to make more with less.
Unlike other soup kitchens in Harlem that act on a referral basis or limit their meals to seniors or N.Y. residents, this food bank has a no turn-away policy. Anybody can ask for a meal and receive one. No questions asked. As a result, cooks there have been forced to make several cutbacks, including the twice-weekly breakfast program that until August catered to 200-400 people.
They have also been forced to reevaluate purchases and solicit private donations to stay afloat.
“We try not to make it seem like we don’t have,” Demazio says. “We make it happen.”
Barbecue chicken with mac and cheese is the crowd’s favorite, he says. But to cut costs, he must choose between including mozzarella or cheddar cheese in his recipe instead of using both. Whichever cheese is cheaper makes it to the final dish. The food bank staff also makes their own barbecue sauce and wraps their own cutlery and napkins instead of getting prepackaged kits.
Because the quality of the food is important to Demazzio, he sometimes pays for ingredients himself.
“If I’m running low on garlic, I’ll go out and buy some,” he says. “I’m not going to serve someone something that I’m not going to eat.”
At a time when poverty in new New York City is five points ahead of the national average the food bank’s budget was cut in half at the end of August, the result of a fixed amount of state funding being spread among more programs that cater to the increasing number of poor and unemployed in the city.
Demazzio estimates however, that by the end of this year, he would have served 1 million meals, a 30 percent increase from 2010.
“The lines are getting longer, with more children,” says Daryl Foriest, 43, director of the community kitchen and food pantry. “We have to be creative because we care about what we do. The dedicated staff makes it easier.”
Despite growing demand, further cuts, restructuring or elimination is concern, Carol Schnieder Food Bank NYC’s associate director of Media Relations wrote in an e-mail. Congress is struggling to eliminate $2.1 trillion from the federal budget over the next 10 years, and funding for programs like this food bank may be on the chopping block.
To avoid federal cuts, Food Bank administrators have started an online petition and developed creative initiatives including having patrons send hand written notes on paper plates to Congressmen, to let them know how important the community kitchen is.
“If the funding for the food pantry is cut, me and my son will not eat for at least two days of the week,” is one just one example of the notes on paper plates sent to members of Congress in September.
Every day, from Monday to Friday, a line of people waiting to enter the community kitchen begins to develop at 4 PM along 116th street. Some look homeless with dirty or messy clothes, but others are dressed in khakis, collared shirts and ties.
The flow of people is steady in the 50-seat dining room within the two-hour dinner period. As they enter, the regulars greet each other and engage in conversation. A friendly hostess hands each person a tray, then they are given a portion of each item by community kitchen staff.
While some choose to eat in, others take their plates and leave.
“I live in a shelter where there are no cooking facilities,” says Beverly, 59, who declined to give her last name. “It’s a blessing that this place is here.”
As she transfers the plate of food into Tupperware containers that she brought with her, she explains that the food bank provided her with meals while unemployed and homeless for the past five months. She recently started working in a supermarket, but she still comes to the community kitchen for dinner.
“I found a job, but if I spend all my money on food, I can’t save for my new apartment,” she said.
Beverly has noticed cutbacks. While she says the food quality is still good, portion sizes are smaller on some days. Others lament the fact that they no longer get seconds.
“Some people were depending on those seconds like me,” says Bryan Ortiz, 45, an unemployed construction worker living in a shelter. “This is my first meal today.”
Ortiz keeps a jug to collect leftovers so he can eat the next morning. He only gets work occasionally, when construction sites need additional help. On those days, he says, the recently eliminated breakfast program: eggs, sausages and grits, helped to “hold him over” until dinner.
An average of 1.4 million New York City residents do not have access to food on a regular basis, according to the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. Food pantries and soup kitchens help fill that need, but 55.3% of these agencies do not have enough food or resources to meet the current demand, according to a survey done by the Coalition.
“I’m praying to God some money drops out of the sky somewhere,” said Demazio. “I know how it is when I’m hungry, and how irritable I get, but I have a full stocked refrigerator. So I’m imagining people everyday who just depend on one meal how hard it can be.”