FOOD RIGHTS NOW

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New York City’s welfare offices routinely deny poor people the chance to apply for food stamps, activists and poor New Yorkers charged at a recent hearing on the federal nutrition program. And a new report puts the blame squarely on city welfare reform policies and lax state and federal oversight.

The hearing, held by the United States Department of Agriculture, was convened in order to encourage public comment on the program. One major question: why fewer and fewer eligible Americans participate, even as attendance at food banks and soup kitchens increases.

Locally, only 897,789 New Yorkers were receiving food stamps in June, compared with 1,435,025 in 1995, the year before welfare reform began. At the same time, the New York City Coalition Against Hunger reports that requests for emergency food have increased steadily for the past three years.

Speakers at the hearing described punitive and unfair treatment from the city’s welfare offices, which process food stamp requests.

“I don’t want to be a public burden,” protested Vilma Tejeda, through a translator. “I worked, I studied, and this is what I teach my children. When I needed help, I should have [been able to get] it.” Tejeda said her request for food stamps was denied because she was not a citizen–even though her children have their citizenship. “No one knows what its like to go to these places, hear these comments made between clenched teeth.”

In 1998, the USDA sharply criticized the New York City government for denying needy people the chance to sign up for the program. But a recent report from the Urban Justice Center finds these local policies have not improved.

“Our report shows that the policies and practices of New York City impede the federal goal” of increasing access to food stamps, says project director Heidi Dorow. Pointing out that access to nutritious food is considered a recognized human right under international law, the report also asks for “a more human standard of government accountability and policies that work toward eliminating poverty–not eliminating public assistance.”