At Brooklyn Pantries & Kitchens, New Need is Getting Old

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Working at the Bed-Stuy Campaign Against Hunger.

Photo by: Anika Anand

Working at the Bed-Stuy Campaign Against Hunger.

Food pantries and soup kitchens across Brooklyn are running short of food. Managers say food donations are down, while at the same time demand is up. They blame the long-term effects of the stagnant economy for high unemployment and lower levels of charitable giving, along with the recent impact of storm damage to farms that no longer have produce to donate.

“I have seen less produce, less food, less funding, less everything, but more people,” said Tamara Dawson, program manager at the Bed-Stuy Campaign Against Hunger.

Of more than 200 Brooklyn food pantries and soup kitchens surveyed by the New York City Campaign Against Hunger, more than 90 percent reported increased demand over the last year.

“Never in my life have I been to the food bank and it’s empty,” said Joy Tikili, supervisor of the food pantry at Church of God Seventh Day Pentecostal Church.

Tikili went online on Friday to order food from the Emergency Food Assistance Program, a federal program that is the single largest source of emergency food in New York City, according to FoodBankNYC.org.

That program, run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is meant to supplement the existing diets of low-income Americans including the elderly, according to the government agency, but some food pantries and soup kitchens rely on it as more than just a supplement.

Tikili said the assistance program’s food bank was virtually empty when she checked, so instead she turned to United Way, a volunteer-run organization that connects those in need with the food, support and shelter offered by non-profit groups all over the city.

And the need for emergency food citywide is growing. Tikili expects to see still more new faces at her food pantry. Already, she’s been seeing 10 or 15 new faces a week, up from two or three per week six months ago, she said.

At Bethany United Methodist Church’s soup kitchen in Brooklyn, there’s a similar scene.

“We’ve seen a lot of new faces,” said Vera Burnett, 82. “We don’t ask them why they come, we just give them a hot meal.”

If supplies last, that is.

“Sometimes we don’t have enough food, so we give what we have,” said Reverend Rose Seelal at First Mary Magdalene Temple of Faith. “For two weeks last month, we didn’t have any food at all,” she said.

On top of the long-term economic problems, tropical storm Irene caused an unexpected drop in food donations coming from upstate agricultural communities. In the week leading up to the storm, FeedNYC reported receiving 257 pounds per stop. The week following the storm saw the agency receiving 248 pounds per stop, a nearly ten-pound drop.

The shortages, food pantry managers say, are especially hard on seniors and families with children.

According to the New York City Campaign Against Hunger, 39 percent of the food pantries the organization surveyed said that the number of seniors requesting help has increased, and 48.8 percent saw an increase in the number of families seeking food assistance over the last year.

“We saw hardship and difficulty even when the economy was booming. You can imagine how much more we see now that the economy looks the way it looks,” said Alexander Rapaport, director of the Masbia soup kitchen in Flatbush.

Masbia is a group that runs four storefront soup kitchens in Brooklyn and Queens, serving sit-down dinners in a restaurant-style environment to allow patrons some dignity during what can be an embarrassing financial situation.

“We know the importance in recognizing the dignity of the people we serve,” said Anthony Butler, executive director at Bread and Life, an emergency food provider in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn.

“Some people come here with extra bags so they can hide the food. They don’t want their neighbors to see it because they are embarrassed,” said Grace Casiano while waiting in line for food at Most Holy Trinity Church. “But I don’t see the problem. We all need to eat,” she said.

Read the rest of our ‘Lunchtime, Tuesday’ reports:
Despite Economic Slowdown, Food Prices Rise In New York

Bushwick: ‘There are kids out there who are hungry besides us.’

Bed-Stuy: ‘I have seen less produce, less food … but more people.’

Crown Heights: ‘If you come in hot, I know how to cool you down.’

Williamsburg: ‘Normal families need food. This is ridiculous.’

Midwood: ‘They can come into a store that’s neat and feel good about it.’

Bushwick: ‘I see a lot of older people come now.’

Crown Heights: ‘For two weeks last month, we didn’t have any food at all.’

Bed-Stuy: ‘We know the importance in recognizing the dignity of the people.’

Sheepshead Bay: ‘It’s painful and it’s embarrassing, you know?’

Prospect Heights: ‘If you come late, they’ll let you stay.’

Williamsburg: ‘Never say you won’t drink the dirty water.’