Going Hungry: A Snapshot of Food Pantries in New York

| September 23, 2011 2:18 PM

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This article was adapted from a piece done by City Limits Magazine and students at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

Seventy-five thousand New Yorkers were pushed into poverty from 2009 to 2010 as the city’s poor population jumped to 20.1 percent. Nearly one-fifth of the city’s residents are now on food stamps.

The latest figures confirm what operators at the city’s food pantries and soup kitchens already knew as they saw increasingly longer lines and dwindling resources.

On one Tuesday in September, visits to 12 food pantries and soup kitchens in Brooklyn yielded unique stories of why patrons came, and reports from operators of a rising demand for their services.

    Every Tuesday, Vera Burnett,82, cooks for up to 250 people in need at Bethany United Church. City limits/Elbert Chu

    Crown Heights: He’s Helping out Mom While Looking for Work

    Every week for over a year, Nevel Burnett, 48, has served food at Bethany United Methodist Church’s soup kitchen in Brooklyn, where his mom is the boss. With a team of 24 volunteers, they cook and serve enough food for people with ingredients donated by City Harvest and the Food Bank. Meanwhile, Burnett just wants a job with health insurance.

    “There’s not many jobs out there for pressmen these days,” says Burnett.

    He used to run the printing presses a book publishing house, but Burnett’s company laid him off in 2009.

    “I’m not good with technology,” said Burnett. He has no email or mobile phone.

    “Working at the soup kitchen helps people and keeps my mind sharp,” says Burnett. He said if his mom were not in Brooklyn, he would have left New York to find work.

    Read the full story at City Limits.

    Williamsburg: “Never Say You Won’t Drink the Dirty Water”

    At 1:10 p.m., 29 people stand in the hot sun along Johnson Avenue in Williamsburg waiting for Most Holy Trinity Church to open the back door to its kitchen. They know the routine at this food pantry. Many carry umbrellas, folding chairs, magazines and stools. Nearly everyone has a pushcart.

    Luis Gonzalez, 49, an unemployed chef, has been coming to the food pantry for two months, since a spinal condition forced him to quit working.

    “Never say you won’t drink the dirty water, because someday you gonna get real thirsty,” said Gonzalez. The crowd laughs at his comment and the man behind him slaps his back. Gonzalez winces in pain.

    The door opens and Hector Belen, 62, the food pantry’s volunteer coordinator, emerges. He shouts first in rapid-fire Spanish and then translates to English: “There will be a few delays today. Everyone needs to be patient, please.”

    Read the full story at City Limits.

    Bedford Stuyvesant: She’s Never Seen the Food Bank Empty

    “I have seen less produce, less food, less funding, less everything, but more people,” said Tamara Dawson, program manager at the Bed-Stuy Campaign Against Hunger.

    Of more than 200 Brooklyn food pantries and soup kitchens surveyed by the New York City Campaign Against Hunger, more than 90 percent reported increased demand over the last year.

    “Never in my life have I been to the food bank and it’s empty,” said Joy Tikili, supervisor of the food pantry at Church of God Seventh Day Pentecostal Church.

    Tikili went online on Friday to order food from the Emergency Food Assistance Program, a federal program that is the single largest source of emergency food in New York City, according to FoodBankNYC.org.

    That program, run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is meant to supplement the existing diets of low-income Americans including the elderly, according to the government agency, but some food pantries and soup kitchens rely on it as more than just a supplement.

    Read the full story at City Limits.

    Sheepshead Bay: She’s Embarrassed to Turn People Away

    Every Tuesday from noon to 2 p.m., hungry people line up outside Hannah’s Kosher Shabbat Food Pantry at 2102 Avenue T in Brooklyn. Each receives a bag of Kosher food to last a week: fresh or canned fruits and vegetables, pasta, beans, maybe even fresh bread or orange juice.

    But on this Tuesday, the pantry is closed. Its director, 46-year-old Hannah Zarzar of Brooklyn, said she doesn’t have enough food to feed the 100 families who visit her every week.

    Hannah’s Kosher Pantry relies on donations from individuals, vendors and wholesalers as well as grant money for purchases through the Food Bank for New York City. Lately, supplies have dwindled as budget cuts make their way down the food chain. At the top are lawmakers seeking to trim the deficit. Their cuts affect entitlement programs like the Food Bank, which helps feed 1.5 million New Yorkers each year and supports more than 1,000 food pantries throughout the city. For Zarzar, this means limited quantities and variety of food. For her clients, it means hunger.

    “It’s painful,” said Zarzar at her home in Midwood. “It’s painful and it’s embarrassing, you know? They rely on us to bring food to the pantry so that they can bring it home to their household.”

    On days when she has to close, she refers her clients to other pantries and encourages them to sign up for food stamps, if they haven’t already. But for her many elderly clients, traveling from place to place in search of food is an arduous task.

    Zarzar herself is no stranger to hunger. Twelve years ago, she and her husband were struggling to feed their family of 10. Donations from a local Kosher food panty, Tomchei Shabbos, pulled them through. Once their situation stabilized, Zarzar gave back. She raised $10,000 in donations for the pantry. Her family started distributing surplus from Tomchei Shabbos to local families in need. Hannah’s Kosher Shabbat Food Pantry was born.

    Read the story at City Limits.

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