Hunger crisis: 1 in 5 New Yorkers depend on food pantries
March 18, 2014
It’s a quiet crisis. In a city of plenty, a staggering number of people are struggling to feed themselves and their families.
Nearly one in five New Yorkers, 1.4 million people, now rely on a patchwork network of 1,000 food pantries and soup kitchens across the city to eat.
That represents an increase of 200,000 people in five years — straining the charities that are trying to help.
The two biggest, City Harvest and the Food Bank for New York City, now provide nearly 110 million pounds of food to soup kitchens and food pantries a year.
Yet those working on the front lines of the hunger crisis say it’s still not enough.
“It’s an astounding surge in need, and it’s because it is so hard for people to find jobs, or find a decent-paying job. They are turning to us for emergency help,” said Msgr. Kevin Sullivan, 63, executive director of 90 free food outlets run by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York.
“So many people, too many people, don’t have enough money to pay for rent and also eat.”
At the Washington Heights Ecumenical Food Pantry, bags packed with milk, juice, rice, pasta, tomato sauce, dry beans and other staples fly off the shelves.
Located in a small church vestry, the pantry is open one day a week, serving a steady clientele of 275 people. It could easily help three times as many, if only it had the food, volunteers said.
From soup kitchens in the Bronx, to mobile food markets on Staten Island and in Brooklyn, to pantries in Queens, the story is the same: lines stretching longer and longer, people arriving earlier and earlier, even in the depths of winter.
“Our Lady of Grace, in the northeast Bronx, saw the number of new households double in November — a 100% increase,” said Paul Costiglio, spokesman for Catholic Charities. “Across the board, our programs are reporting a continued increase in the number of working people, unemployed and families.”
The hunger crisis erupted when the Great Recession set in.
The number of city residents receiving aid under the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, soared from 1.3 million in 2008 to 1.8 million today.
Yet, with so many people in need, the biggest benefit reduction in the 50-year history of food stamps took effect Nov. 1.
That’s when a temporary increase in benefits — pushed through by President Obama in 2009 as part of his economic stimulus program — lapsed.
New York households receiving food stamps saw their benefits decrease by an average of $30 to $50 a month, depending on a complex formula that takes into account family size and income.
For a typical family of three, that meant a drop to $189 a month, down from about $220.
Food pantry and soup kitchen operators said the impact was swift and dramatic: Although the economy had rebounded since the financial crisis, those at the bottom of the ladder had not fully shared in the recovery.
And so, on a frigid and windy Wednesday recently, a cluster of about 30 men and women stood outside — sometimes for as long as an hour — to get into the Food Bank for New York City’s Community Kitchen and Food Pantry in Harlem.
In the cramped basement, families took turns moving through a makeshift supermarket, picking what they liked from the small selection on the shelves.
“I got fish today. They gave me salmon,” said Alejandro Medina, 54, a maintenance man at a homeless shelter who earns about $24,000 a year.
His wife works part-time and brings in $8,000. With four kids at home — two of their own and two nephews they care for — they also get $189 a month in food stamps.
But after spending $1,200 a month in rent for their two-bedroom apartment in the Bronx, and paying their other bills, there’s never enough left for food, he said.