Second Helping

Print More

In the tiny basement of Morrisania’s Holy Tabernacle Church, a group of Bronx residents clusters around a row of six computers. They’re here to learn the skills that will prepare them for a decent job, but few have ever used a computer before. New arrivals start by learning how to turn the machines off and on, and how to use a mouse.

“What do you see on the lower left?” asks church volunteer Frances Brown. “Start!” comes the response. “So what do you do? Click! Click on the left!” she exhorts with passion usually reserved here for Sundays.

Most of the 15 adults enrolled in this six-week class originally came to the church for its Monday soup kitchen or its Tuesday food pantry. Unlike most city food pantries, which allow each family only one or two visits a month, Holy Tabernacle hands out food every week.

With determination, Brown raises her voice above the drone of an industrial freezer in the adjoining kitchen. Meticulously toothpicked rolls of muenster cheese and ham, along with pound cake and cans of apple juice, await the students when they’re done. Brown makes silk flowers for a living, but she appears to spend all her free time running the church’s food and arts programs, rounding up about $20,000 in public money each year to buy government surplus, food that corporations couldn’t sell, and meat and cereal from a discount wholesaler.

At today’s class, one woman reports that she comes to the food pantry to help herself and her son stretch her disability checks and $10 a month in food stamps into a workable budget. Another has a job, and is a regular volunteer at the pantry–and an occasional customer when making ends meet for her family becomes impossible. A third came to this class because, she says, her workfare assignment isn’t giving her any skills that’ll help her find a job.

Job training is a new venture for Brown, thanks to a $15,000 grant from the New York Community Trust’s Beyond Hunger initiative. Next week, the class will start working with a professional trainer. “The food and the computers work together,” Brown says, “because when you see people out there, it’s not just because they’re hungry but because they feel worthless. They don’t have people to turn to, and they don’t have skills. We help them pick themselves up and learn how to do things to get jobs.” Her program is one of 15 Beyond Hunger projects underwritten this year by New York Community Trust, which is channeling its anti-hunger funding into counseling, client monitoring and job training at food pantries and soup kitchens.

The Trust is the only foundation interested in branching out. City Harvest, the nonprofit that collects restaurant leftovers for soup kitchens, got a Philip Morris grant to look into opening a kitchen to train the unemployed for jobs in food service — a model that the tobacco giant has been pushing nationwide. Mazon, a Jewish Response to Hunger funds programs that shepherd clients towards self-sufficiency and away from emergency food. And in the last decade, a few New York “souper kitchens,” with paid staff and extensive foundation and government support, have grown far beyond their initial food function, providing everything from case management to HIV prevention, English as a Second Language classes to job counseling.

These programs rise from a growing recognition that emergency food providers are perfectly situated to branch out from food delivery to social services. Funders see that the most needy people show up in soup kitchens and food pantries, often bonding with volunteers who work there. Volunteers like it because they recognize it’s a good way to help people become self-sufficient and reduce the need for food assistance in the first place.

The question for the providers is how much more can they possibly take on, when simply keeping up with the demand for food is stretching the charity food system’s capacity to the limit. Welfare reform, low wages, chronic unemployment and inadequate public benefits conspired to bring an estimated 600,000 city residents to soup kitchens and food banks last year. Food for Survival, the city’s central “food bank,” reported a 38 percent increase in the amount of food it handed out between the summers of 1997 and 1998. Even so, the New York City Coalition Against Hunger estimates that 2,000 people a day were turned away in the first part of 1998.

Much of the increased demand has fallen on smaller groups that are not necessarily equipped to deal with the added burden of writing grants, hiring staff and running a social service organization. Half have budgets of $10,000 or less a year, and the majority are church-based groups relying on volunteer help. “We’re not equipped, nor should we handle it,” declares Sister Elizabeth Judge, who runs the Little Sisters of the Assumption food pantry in East Harlem. “The government has really dumped responsibility.”

Yet while her head says one thing, her heart does another. Sister Elizabeth is continually making phone calls on behalf of the people who come in for groceries, trying to get their benefits restored or utilities turned back on.

The loose network of emergency-food providers has recently found itself at a crossroads. Foundations, the government and their own instincts compel providers to add to their list of responsibilities, even as they strain to make an inherently inefficient system meet the increasing demand for food. At the same time, anti-hunger advocates have to constantly remind themselves that this apparatus was never meant to be permanent. Food providers are acutely aware that by picking up the slack, they help cover for government as it dismantles the social safety net.

It turns out that feeding people has been the easy part.

_______

As recently as two decades ago, only a few dozen food providers were open for business in New York City, many of them taking the missionary position that one must repent to repast. A changing economy and rising cost of living in the 1980s and 1990s changed all that. There are now roughly 1,100 food pantries and soup kitchens citywide; the number of outlets has grown by 17 percent in the past three years alone.

Emergency food still carries the stigma of Skid Row soup joints filled with drunks and the mentally ill, or the heavy baggage of accepting charity from one’s own church. Some parts of this legacy remain: Soup kitchens tend to serve single adults, many of them homeless, while food pantries are generally used by mothers and their children.

The entire system has the fascinating distinction of being redundant, insufficient and inefficient at the same time. “Nobody planned it this way,” says Judith Walker, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. “But who would want to stop it when the need is growing?”

The focal point of New York hunger relief is the 82,000-square-foot warehouse at Hunts Point Cooperative Market run by Food for Survival. For 10 cents a pound the providers get goods corporate America couldn’t sell–failed test-marketed products, mislabeled packages, funny-colored batches of fruit juice–and USDA surplus, which has moved on from Reagan-era cheese to a surprisingly healthy variety of basics. But surplus is surplus: 15 truckloads of Iowa pork were February’s windfall.

Food for Survival is on the heavy end of a precarious balance between a highly professionalized distribution core and a string of volunteer outlets. If one of Food for Survival’s seven trucks finds a locked church gate when it arrives for a delivery–it has to go back to Hunts Point to remove the unclaimed boxes so the next delivery is accessible. Drop-offs come once a month, or providers can pick up food once every two weeks. It’s not unknown for a pantry to rent a U-Haul in order to guarantee the goods, particularly now that Food for Survival requires new programs to provide their own transportation.

A single neighborhood is often served by multiple providers, each open on a different schedule. Patrons become experts on where to go, when. “You have to remember, this one’s on Wednesday, this one’s on Friday,” complains Gina Jackson, eating lunch at St. John’s Bread and Life soup kitchen in Bedford-Stuyvesant. “I would rate this the best. The other places, half the time they don’t have anything to eat.”

The rule of thumb is that clients can take home enough food for three days-fine in a short-term emergency, but meaningless for the ongoing support most patrons need. If a food pantry does otherwise, it has to contend with the consequences.

Reverend Maryella Rogers of Brownsville’s Jerena Lee Community AME Church spent her entire annual federal allocation–$8,800–in five months, giving each client two weeks of food. “Right now, we don’t have any food for the pantry,” she explains. I don’t just give for three days, three meals, because of the situation in the neighborhood. A lot of people are on SSI and food stamps, people are doubled up in housing.” Now she’s organizing a raffle, hoping to raise $700 to reopen the kitchen this spring.

It doesn’t take an economist to figure out that replacing the government safety net with a grassroots network of volunteers who bake ziti in church basements and pack surplus rolled oats into grocery bags is asking the impossible. Congress, as part of welfare reform, covered its political butt by trying to tack on an extra $100 million for the federal commodities surplus distribution program–which supplies about half of the goods in New York’s emergency food outlets. Only $80 million ended up in the 1997 budget, slight compensation for $5 billion in food stamp cuts in the 1996 welfare overhaul.

Today, about 250,000 fewer New Yorkers receive food stamps than two years ago, a dip of 21 percent. As documented in a federal lawsuit earlier this year, people seeking emergency food stamps and other public assistance at the city’s new “job centers” were routinely turned away–and often sent to pantries for food instead. Immigrants cut off from food stamps and other assistance by welfare reform have also become regulars in church basements.

Even getting food stamps is no guarantee that you won’t need to use a pantry: 53 percent of clients at emergency food outlets, reports the national food bank Second Harvest, also receive the federal coupons. The program is notorious for inadequate benefits, and overwhelming rents and high grocery prices make it especially ineffective in New York. Citywide, food stamps average $80.47 per person each month, or just 88 cents a day. Food pantries typically see a surge of visitors in the second half of each month, when the stamps start to run out.

But the lines at soup kitchens and food pantries can’t be explained solely by cutbacks in public assistance. Nearly a quarter of the people standing in those lines are employed, according to a 1997 Second Harvest survey, and more than one-third live with someone who works. These are not people dealing with an emergency–unless you consider chronic poverty an emergency. Without a change in their lives, they’ll keep coming back for more food. They have no choice.

_______

Emergency food providers have always offered support beyond nutrition–it’s a natural extension of the will to help, the underlying foundation of the entire system. The assistance is effective because typically it comes from neighbors–volunteers who look and talk like the people in line and who are trusted, unlike caseworkers, to keep their clients’ interests first.

Church basements are also the one place where people seeking a hand don’t have to pay by sacrificing privacy. “We don’t ask questions,” says Juana Oleaga, a 26-year-old from the Dominican Republic who works manufacturing photo albums when she’s not running the pantry and kitchen at Spanish SDA Church of Fort Washington. Though some visitors to the cozy basement pantry stop to chat with familiar volunteers, many speak only when spoken to, accepting their donations with a nod and mumbled thanks before heading back out into the cold.

Pat White, the New York Community Trust program officer in charge of the Beyond Hunger grants, acknowledges that there’s a risk of culture shock in the work she’s funding. “It’s important to recognize the organizational culture that already exists and build capacity gradually among volunteers, so that you are not overnight dramatically changing the way an agency works,” she suggests.

In addition to Holy Tabernacle’s computer classes, Beyond Hunger is funding a job bank, employment training and social service referrals–all run by food providers. “The driving force behind this is welfare reform,” White says. “It suggests that more people must be moved toward greater self-sufficiency, and as long as strategies fail to address that reality, significant numbers of folks will be worse off than they are now. This is a way of using the avenues that already exist to serve this population and change the ways that they service them.”

White is working in partnership with charity powerhouse United Way, which has an exclusive deal to broker $7.4 million in federal food dollars each year to individual organizations in the city. Like New York Community Trust, United Way has decided that emergency food suppliers need to expand their horizons.

“We held focus groups last year to try to determine what would help food providers maximize their capacity, as well as help with their capacity to move beyond food,” says Ronda Zawel, the director of United Way’s government food program. Starting this year, the organization is looking carefully at two factors in its funding: whether or not there is unmet need in the provider’s neighborhood, and whether or not the provider can handle both food and non-food work. Inevitably, she says, it involves shaking up the existing system.

“There are lots of churches where the average volunteer’s age is 75,” Zawel says. “People get sick, and they can’t come in. That’s one reason we’re trying to be more strategic in our funding. Does it make sense to fund every pantry?” Though United Way’s board is still debating the issue, it’s possible that providers that don’t make the cut will lose their funding entirely.

Perhaps unavoidably, both the supply and demand for emergency food privilege big groups over small ones, professional over amateur. Regularly cited as a model of what emergency food providers could become, the West Side Campaign Against Hunger runs on $256,000 in cash and $191,000 in donations. It’s one of five pantries in the city that gets deliveries twice a month, and here they are double-sized.

Glenny Suero, who lost her food stamps because of welfare law reform–she came to the U.S. at the age of two months–comes all the way from the Bronx to the Campaign’s pantry on West 86th Street, as do a quarter of its customers. “They give you more stuff here. Other places, you have to wait in line outside,” she says, sitting in a large waiting area. The place is friendly and accommodating; around Suero, women share stories about public-aid misadventures while children play hide-and-seek in the rows of chairs.

Customers select food from shelves instead of picking up pre-packed bags, and two paid caseworkers screen visitors for eligibility while respectfully gathering information on their incomes, housing situations, health, education, public assistance status and long-term goals. They use the personal information to make informed referrals to outside services.

The Coalition Against Hunger’s Judith Walker isn’t sure that any one strategy for emergency food reform holds all the answers, but she thinks the West Side Campaign provides some of them. “The long-term goal is to shrink the network: improve, streamline and shrink,” she says. Each month, at least a dozen groups call Walker’s office asking how to start a new food outlet. They’re in for a surprise: she urges them to reconsider, no matter how much need they see in their community. “And I always fail,” says Walker. “I try to explain to them that it’s not in anyone’s long-term interest.” Small newcomers, open a day or two a week and lacking equipment to store perishables, put additional demand on the network without appreciably improving access to food.

Walker has been shopping around a proposal-cum-manifesto titled “Beyond the Soup Kitchen,” which outlines a plan to rethink food support in New York. It includes ambitious proposals for a media campaign and a think tank that would focus on building income security. At its core would be an Emergency Food Action Center, which would collaborate with government and private agencies to clean up the system. She also calls for grants, training and technical assistance to help food providers launch job counseling or classes like ESL, saying the system can’t work unless providers collaborate, pooling knowledge and resources.

In a largely fragmented food-provider community, her plan would entail some radical changes, and she’s not taking support for granted. “Since almost no one is providing money for this, we have to chip away at both ends of the problem,” says Walker. “When churches have people knocking on their doors for food, we can’t just tell them, ‘Sorry, we’re doing it this other way now.’ We have to move in two directions at once.”

_______

The kind of high-profile soup kitchen that ends up in a New York Times photo the day after Thanksgiving, St. John’s Bread and Life in Bedford-Stuyvesant offers its 900 daily guests job counseling, medical treatment, counseling on substance abuse and AIDS and HIV/AIDS and parenting support groups, all on-site. Clients can also enroll in Bridge to Respect, a city anti-HIV project that offers help with housing, education and employment.

“This is what we’re known for,” says Executive Director Hossein Sadat. “And now other agencies want to follow us. Part of that has to do with how funding sources have changed-they go after accountability and impact on a population more than just hand-outs. That culture has developed over the past five or six years, and it forces providers to enhance their services.”

It took Sadat 11 years to get all this going. His tireless fundraising has brought in support from high-profile donors like Rosie O’Donnell and Donald Trump. At the West Side Campaign, location and media savvy help drum up donations of money and time. For other groups to pick up these innovations, they’ll likewise have to find extra support.

Sadat believes big providers like St. John’s need to provide technical assistance to smaller ones, helping them navigate the foundation world. But he insists that no matter how successful his agency has been, the multi-services route is not the answer for everyone. Different neighborhoods and populations have different needs, he points out–lots of people really don’t want more than a meal and to be left alone. And many church volunteers will walk away at the first whiff of money; they provide food as part of a deep spiritual mandate and use their programs to build a community.

Mazon, one of St. John’s funders, cites it as a model for long-term approaches to alleviating hunger. The program’s influence–as well as Sadat’s conviction that food programs can successfully promote self-sufficiency–can also be seen in the United Way and Community Trust plans.

Though she, too, looks to St. John’s for inspiration, Judith Walker insists that there must be a “third way” between continuing to shovel out eats and trying to create a private-sector social service network that just happens to provide food. “It’s ridiculous to think of these efforts as a should,” she says. “If you put it that way, you’re taking the welfare-reformers line–you’re saying that we should accept these cuts. There’s a deep irony that this stressed-out, overly volunteer network is being asked to do more now.”

When asked what would make the system work, virtually every executive director gives the same answers: a higher minimum wage, a guaranteed minimum income, at the very least a public benefits system that covers basic needs. Walker and other advocates–even a funder, Mazon–want to see some of the 4.3 million volunteer hours that go into distributing emergency food citywide each year channeled into advocacy work, to get government to hold up its end of the deal.

In the eternal meantime, providers find themselves turning into exactly what they don’t want to be: entrenched institutions, serving rising numbers of meals and expanding services simply because the need is so pressing they see no choice. Like Walker, they may be ambivalent about engineering a more efficient food-delivery machine. But who’s prepared to tell the people waiting outside that the door’s not going to open?