Stirring the Pot

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Hiram Bonner’s fans line up early outside the Community Food Resource Center’s kitchen on West 116th Street. The tall, velvet-voiced Bonner–trained at the Cordon Bleu Institute in London–arrived in February and promptly threw out the cans that once supplied the agency’s daily meal. These days, the kitchen serves fresh fruit and salad, along with entrées like Asian tofu and salmon with lemon-parsley sauce. The program has caught on. Kenny Pryor, an unemployed food-service worker, says he comes all the way from Brooklyn for Bonner’s fare. “More people come every day,” Pryor says.

That’s not necessarily good news. Like most of the city’s soup kitchens and food pantries, this one is overtaxed. Last year, the kitchen served 550 meals a day on a much simpler menu; this year it’s up to 750 meals. The pattern is visible citywide. In 2002, emergency food providers turned away nearly 350,000 hungry New Yorkers, a 241 percent increase over 2000, according to the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, a local umbrella group that represents hundreds of emergency food providers.

Moving away from a basic menu that’s easy to prepare towards CFRC’s finer and more nutritious cuisine isn’t easy to do on a budget, much less in the face of skyrocketing need. That’s where Richard Murphy comes in.

CFRC’s new executive director, who started last September, has big plans to promote smart food consumption among low-income people. The organization is teaching clients at Bonner’s kitchen how to cook healthy, inexpensive meals. It also won an $182,000 grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to improve school meals and help kids learn about nutrition. Meanwhile, CFRC is working with community groups to help clients get food stamps and Earned Income Tax Credits. By 2005, Murphy hopes, CFRC will receive more than half its revenue from training, technical assistance and developing “intellectual capital.”

If Murphy has changed the group’s mission in subtle ways, he’s changed its style more dramatically. During the 1990s, when Washington ended guaranteed public assistance and the Giuliani administration was purging hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers from welfare rolls, CFRC was a loud presence in political advocacy. These days, Murphy chooses to work behind the scenes instead, as an open-minded collaborator.

“We’re not here to be the largest feeder of poor people or preparer of taxes,” says Murphy. Instead, CFRC is becoming a high-profile think tank, one that helps strengthen the entire structure of food access in New York City.

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It’s not surprising to find CFRC at the cutting edge of food provision–the agency has been there before. When Kathy Goldman first founded CFRC in 1980 with a $6,000 grant to promote school breakfasts, there were only 40 emergency food programs in New York, and they mostly provided basics: hot meals and pre-packed bags of donated or surplus groceries. Goldman changed that. She and her early staff recognized that clients seeking food assistance could often benefit from a host of other services as well. By helping them gain access to welfare, for example, or eviction defense, they could prevent them from sliding further into poverty. “For me, starting all that was about making government work better so people can help themselves,” explains State Senator Liz Krueger, who served as associate director of CFRC from 1987 until she took office last year.

Guided by Krueger’s vision, the agency won city contracts for food stamp and eviction prevention programs that served thousands, and spun off the New York City Coalition Against Hunger and the New York City Food Bank. During the Giuliani years, Krueger and Senior Policy Analyst Don Friedman became fixtures at City Hall and on the nightly news, demanding more and better benefits for low-income New Yorkers.

Murphy takes a different tack. “I don’t think we need to do the things we needed to do under Giuliani,” he says. “There’s a big difference between a Giuliani and a Bloomberg. You can negotiate with a Bloomberg.” And though he still sees CFRC as a watchdog–the agency has sued the city for vending sugary drinks in schools–he also looks for ways to work inside government circles, a legacy perhaps of his own days as the city’s Youth Services commissioner under Mayor David Dinkins.

Under Murphy, CFRC, which now has a $9 million annual budget and a staff of 92, is evolving from a scrappy underdog organizer into a polished training center, not unlike the Academy for Educational Development, the research and advocacy organization where Murphy worked in Washington. Over the summer, with support from the United Way, CFRC taught five community agencies to administer Food Force software, its own widely praised pre-screening program for food stamp eligibility. “The city isn’t where it wants to be,” says Murphy of food stamp access, but he maintains it’s making honest efforts to get benefits to those who need them.

Clearly, though, there’s more work to be done. An estimated 800,000 local families eligible for food stamps don’t receive them.

“Even according to [the city Human Resources Administration’s] own statistics, the agency is still failing to process at least 20 percent of all food stamp applications within the 30 days required by federal law,” says Coalition Against Hunger director Joel Berg, adding that food stamp applications are not readily available in about one in four offices. Says Berg, “Our collective work is still cut out for us.”

As CFRC moved away from its role as City Hall gadfly, the Coalition Against Hunger is taking up the call. Berg has run media campaigns tied to Thanksgiving and Passover and hopes to highlight national food policy issues, which he worked on under Clinton at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

That leaves Murphy’s group to concentrate on helping the city’s other major food providers, who are going through a maturation process of their own. “There is a desperate need to share what we know,” says Doreen Wohl, executive director of the West Side Campaign Against Hunger. This fall, several groups convened a task force to discuss how to share data and track client visits. Larry Gile, whose staff at St. John’s Bread and Life has doubled since 1998, raised the idea of pooling health insurance costs. “Most of these organizations, including ours, started as the children of Reaganomics,” he says. “A lot of us are now making the jump from grassroots.”

Murphy hopes to help guide them. Comments Goldman, who is retiring this year and helped recruit Murphy as her replacement, “There’s space for people to go in directions I never would have thought of.”

But Murphy says he isn’t averse to reviving the old confrontational approach. “Nobody [on my staff] has ever been told not to go to the steps of City Hall,” he says. “If need be, we’d go.”

Alec Appelbaum writes about environmental and neighborhood issues.