Part of the Solution (POTS) Program Director Darquita Fletcher knocks on wood when asked if the multi-service agency’s food pantry or soup kitchen has ever run out of food.
“Thank goodness a lot of our food is donated,” she said. Despite a growing demand to provide food and nutrition services in the Fordham neighborhood where some have to choose between buying food and paying rent, the 24 year-old Bronx agency has kept pace with the increase in clients eating at its community dining room or receiving food from its food pantry program.
The line of men and women in the hallway outside POTS’ food pantry waiting for bags of food each weekday morning isn’t unique, according to new data released by the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. The Coalition says the number of city residents who use soup kitchens or food pantries rose by an estimated 11 percent in 2006, on top of a 6 percent jump in 2005. The report, “Hunger Hangs On: Despite Stock Market Boom, New York City’s Food Pantries and Soup Kitchens Are Still Overwhelmed,” shows the number of city residents who lack sufficient food is rising. Using data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the report states that from 2003 to 2005, almost 1.3 million of the city’s residents — or one in six — lived in households that could not afford to purchase an adequate supply of food.
A small portion of funding for POTS comes from the state, Fletcher said, with the rest coming from private sources. Of the 281 soup kitchens and food pantries that responded to the Coalition’s survey, out of 1,216 questionnaires distributed, 41 percent reported receiving less food and money over the last 12 months.
Offering services that range from haircuts to showers to case management, POTS deals with hunger and all the issues that surround and follow it. “We had a really big increase in our pantry program and our soup kitchen” over the past three months, Fletcher said, with new pantry program registrants plus older clients returning after having fallen on hard times. There’s usually a surge at the end of the month because clients’ public assistance benefits ran out before the month ended, she said. According to the report, 83 percent of responding agencies reported feeding an increased number of people in the last 12 months.
When there isn’t enough food to go around, charitable food providers decide between turning clients away or reducing portion sizes. The report says that 46 percent of responding agencies reported having to turn away clients, reduce portion sizes and or cut hours of operation in 2006. In 2005, 41 percent of the same agencies reported that problem.
Fitz Vie, 63, went to POTS last Wednesday for its food pantry program because food at home was “running low,” he said. Vie, of the Bronx, is a registered client who lives in one of the seven zip codes that POTS serves in its pantry program. The day before Thanksgiving Day, Vie and several others waited to receive bags filled with meat, canned foods, fruits, vegetables, starches and milk.
In the report, which can be found at www.nyccah.org, Coalition Against Hunger Executive Director Joel Berg makes several recommendations to legislators to remedy the problems facing charitable food providers and impoverished city residents: Increase government food and funding to soup kitchens and food pantries; increase the use of existing federally funded food assistance programs; expand and simplify federal nutrition food assistance programs; launch a new, comprehensive effort to help families climb out of poverty and into the middle class; and mitigate income inequality.
“The whole paradigm of the country’s poverty policy should be shifted from the current system that mostly maintains people at bare subsistence levels to one that enables low-income families to develop assets to help them move out of poverty and into the middle class,” Berg wrote.
Food access was on city officials’ minds last week as Thanksgiving neared. The welfare chief, Human Resources Administration Commissioner Verna Eggleston, testified before City Council that the need for food assistance is growing – so much so that even some HRA employees needed extra help feeding themselves.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn on Wednesday announced the creation of a Food Policy Task Force and the position of Food Policy Coordinator, both aimed at improving access to fresh fruits and vegetables in underserved communities. The task force and coordinator also will increase enrollment in food assistance programs, such as food stamps, and make sure foods served through city agencies are healthy and nutritious.
The Food Policy Task Force will include representatives from the Council speaker’s office, the Department of Education, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the Human Resources Administration and others. The position of Food Policy Coordinator will be filled in the next few months.