Hunger and poverty are on the rise in every corner of the globe and the causes—weather calamities, the conversion of corn to ethanol, spikes in housing and healthcare costs—are increasingly earning banner headlines. According to the BBC, 100 million people are at risk of starvation and it is therefore no surprise that food riots have erupted in nations as diverse as Burkina Faso, Haiti, Mexico, Uzbekistan and Yemen.
Closer to home, 1.3 million New Yorkers, one in six, cannot afford an adequate supply of food and rely on food pantries and soup kitchens to make ends meet. Almost a third, 417,000, are children. In Brooklyn, 350 Emergency Food Programs provide meals and take-home packages to those euphemistically dubbed food insecure.
According to the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, the fastest growth is among working families with children, immigrants, and senior citizens.
Francie, a self-employed single mother of two from Sunset Park, is typical. “I do graphic design work and then submit an invoice. Sometimes I get paid quickly and at other times it takes six-to-eight weeks. At these times, when I’m waiting for a check, I often have to get food from the local pantry,” she reports.
Although Francie receives food stamps, she says the $187 monthly allocation is inadequate. “It helps me get a few bags of groceries,” she says, “but after three weeks the cupboards are usually bare.”
Tony Butler is the Executive Director of St. John’s Bread and Life in Bedford-Stuyvesant, the borough’s largest Emergency Food Program. On a recent May morning, Bread and Life served 820 free breakfasts, a 27 percent increase from the same period in 2007.
In addition to serving breakfast and lunch to anyone who shows up, Bread and Life runs a food pantry for area residents who meet 2008’s federal poverty guidelines: that is individuals making less than $10,400 per year or $21,200 for a family of four. Last year, 40,000 people received food parcels from the pantry.
“The biggest problem,” Butler says, “is gentrification. A lot of people are paying more than half their income for rent. They are shifting money to not become homeless, but then they can’t buy food.”
A report released by Congressman Anthony Weiner in April bears this out. Weiner found that 29.97 percent of Brooklynites pay half their income, or more, for shelter. Add escalating employee contributions for healthcare—the Fiscal Policy Institute estimates a 76 percent rise between 2000 and 2005—and you have a dire financial forecast for the 60 percent of New Yorkers who earn less than $40,000 a year.
The poor, of course, are always hit hardest. A recent study by The Food Bank for New York City found that 57 percent of those using Emergency Food Programs last year were employed full-time, with housing costs gobbling up an average of 59 percent of their income.
Ed Fowler, Executive Director of Neighbors Together, a soup kitchen and community center in Ocean-Hill Brownsville, serves meals to 400 people a day. “There’s been a steady increase in the number of working poor over the past few years,” he says. “People earning minimum wage as security guards, home health aides, and in retail—even if they’re full-time—need us. A Social Security retirement or disability check that five years ago paid a person’s expenses today fails to provide enough money for food, rent and living expenses. Most of the people we see come two, three, or four times a week for meals. At midday there aren’t many kids because of the school lunch program but we started serving dinner 18 months ago because we saw that families needed this help.”
Fowler says that Neighbors Together spends between $125,000 and $140,000 a year on food, and while staff try to serve nutritious meals, including fresh fruit and vegetables, it’s not always possible. “People eat whatever we serve,” he admits. “Sometimes it’s chicken with fresh broccoli and an apple. Other days it’s canned spaghetti and meatballs with canned green beans and canned peaches.”
Maha Allwah coordinates the food pantry at Salam Arabic Lutheran Church in Bay Ridge. “We started the pantry in 1997 because we have a lot of needy Arab-Americans, Jews and Russian immigrants in the community,” she says. Open twice a month, the pantry serves 70 families.
Although Allwah is eager to help, she is frustrated by the magnitude of the problems she encounters. “Besides food we need to help people get jobs. Some who come to us can’t read or write. In winter they need blankets, especially when they have no heat. Others need baby formula,” she says.
“I have to tell the Muslims who come here that the meat is not Halal,” she continues. “They tell me, ‘We will pray and then eat it.’ That shows that they need food very badly.”
Hearing this admission upsets Allawh and her disquiet is magnified when she has to turn people away or give them only a few items because the pantry has run out of supplies. Worse, she is not alone. The New York City Coalition Against Hunger reports that 67 percent of Brooklyn pantries experienced shortages in 2007 thanks to federal and state funding cuts.
Clearly, supply has not kept pace with demand and has forced pantries and kitchens to restrict hours of operation and purchase less food than they used to.
These cutbacks, coupled with the government’s refusal to create meaningful anti-poverty initiatives, enrage Joel Berg, Executive Director of NYCCAH. “Saying you can solve poverty without money is like saying you can solve a drought without water,” he quips. “Thirty years ago, if you were working full-time, you were not poor and had a reasonable expectation that your children and grandchildren would have a better life than you had. That’s not true today.”
The solutions to hunger are not mystical, he continues, “We need a federal commitment to living wage jobs so people can earn enough to feed their families and pay rent. We also need universal healthcare so that if you are working full-time you’re not impoverished.”
Berg also supports expanding food stamps, a means-tested entitlement meant to lift people from poverty and minimize dependence on food pantries and soup kitchens. Increasing the hours that government offices—the places where low income people apply for food stamps, welfare, Medicaid and other entitlements—are open to include weekends and evenings, and allowing people to apply online, rather than in person, would make it easier for working people and the disabled to access benefits. What’s more, Berg believes that ending the fingerprinting requirement imposed on food stamp applicants would go a long way in encouraging enrollment.
But as important as this is, Berg believes that ending poverty will require a massive change in American attitudes toward government intervention. “The Right has convinced Americans that the anti-poverty programs of the 1960s and 70s were failures. The vast majority believe that the War on Poverty didn’t work. In reality, between 1960 and 1973 the poverty rate was cut in half.”
Government, he continues, is responsible for solving social problems. “It would cost approximately $24 billion a year to end poverty,” which he notes is equivalent to what the government spends in three months fighting the war in Iraq.
It is a question of priorities. “Food pantries and soup kitchens are a safety valve. If they didn’t exist more people would suffer. But they are not the solution, no matter how many meals they serve or food parcels they distribute,” Berg says.
Harkening back to the Great Society programs of forty-plus years ago, he and other anti-hunger advocates are pushing hard for systemic changes. “This agenda—good jobs, available healthcare, and a serious safety net—is to the right of Teddy Roosevelt,” Berg says. “It’s a mainstream plan to reduce hunger and poverty.”
ContributorEleanor J. Bader
Eleanor J. Bader is a teacher, writer, and activist. She writes the monthly Stoking Fire column on rhrealitycheck.org, and also contributes to feministreview.org, ontheissuesmagazine.com, The Progressive and other progressive, feminist publications and blogs.