911, A Flood in the Soup Kitchen

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About 200 people received a hot meal from the soup kitchen at the Greater Mount Zion Pentecostal Church on September 9. Rev. Henry Price and his small band of staff and volunteers stretched their donated beans and potatoes as far as they could for the homeless and low-income families that visit the small church in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

Two days later, struck by the same cruel blow that shattered the rest of New York City and the country, the number of Mount Zion’s customers jumped by almost 40 percent. “At least 25 to 30 of my parishioners lost their jobs as a result of the World Trade Center tragedy,” said Rev. Price, whose church has about 250 members, most of them living paycheck to paycheck. “They’re coming in now and saying, ‘Please help me. I have rent. I have children. I’m in desperate need of food.’”

Greater Mount Zion is certainly not alone. According to a survey of 63 soup kitchens and food pantries released in late September by the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, 56 percent saw an “immediate increase” in the demand for meals and food. City Harvest, another major food supplier, found 70 percent of programs were serving more food, and calls to their hunger hotline nearly tripled.

But at least there was no shortage of food for the newly hungry. As a result of the outpouring of relief donations, Food for Survival, the city’s largest food bank, had 11 million pounds of food in its Hunts Point warehouse, more than twice their typical stock, and it had to turn away tractor trailer loads of donations because its infrastructure–warehouse staff, trucks and delivery drivers–was already maxed out. “Our biggest challenge is exhaustion and burnout,” said President Lucy Cabrera.

That challenge of additional work for food providers seems here to stay. The rapidly declining economy–estimates at the end of September placed the city’s newly unemployed at 108,500–is expected to add thousands of newly needy families to the many already seeking food. Food for Survival supplies food for 275,000 meals a day; City Harvest, 20,000.

In the short term, disaster relief funds are available, but the long-term financial picture is far gloomier. Providers worry about the likelhood of reduced city and state budgets. The health of the restaurant, hotel and catering industries is also a serious concern. City Harvest depends on their surplus food and financial gifts to supply 650 soup kitchens. “What about the restaurants that have supported us with tasting events? Hotels that contributed rooms for charity auctions?” wonders Julia Erickson, executive director of City Harvest. “We rely on the vitality of the local food community.”

“Our 1,200 food providers are already working at capacity,” adds Cabrera. “Where are the people who are going to need to be fed going to go?”

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