On Tuesday, Sept. 13, one reporting class from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism sent its students out to talk to patrons and providers at a dozen food pantries and kitchens in Brooklyn. Here is one of the scenes they found:
Every Tuesday from noon to 2 p.m., hungry people line up outside Hannah's Kosher Shabbat Food Pantry at 2102 Avenue T in Brooklyn. Each receives a bag of Kosher food to last a week: fresh or canned fruits and vegetables, pasta, beans, maybe even fresh bread or orange juice.
But on this Tuesday, the pantry is closed. Its director, 46-year-old Hannah Zarzar of Brooklyn, said she doesn't have enough food to feed the 100 families who visit her every week.
Hannah's Kosher Pantry relies on donations from individuals, vendors and wholesalers as well as grant money for purchases through the Food Bank for New York City. Lately, supplies have dwindled as budget cuts make their way down the food chain. At the top are lawmakers seeking to trim the deficit. Their cuts affect entitlement programs like the Food Bank, which helps feed 1.5 million New Yorkers each year and supports more than 1,000 food pantries throughout the city. For Zarzar, this means limited quantities and variety of food. For her clients, it means hunger.
“It's painful,” said Zarzar at her home in Midwood. “It's painful and it's embarrassing, you know? They rely on us to bring food to the pantry so that they can bring it home to their household.”
On days when she has to close, she refers her clients to other pantries and encourages them to sign up for food stamps, if they haven't already. But for her many elderly clients, traveling from place to place in search of food is an arduous task.
Zarzar herself is no stranger to hunger. Twelve years ago, she and her husband were struggling to feed their family of 10. Donations from a local Kosher food panty, Tomchei Shabbos, pulled them through. Once their situation stabilized, Zarzar gave back. She raised $10,000 in donations for the pantry. Her family started distributing surplus from Tomchei Shabbos to local families in need. Hannah's Kosher Shabbat Food Pantry was born.
For years, the Zarzars had more food than they could give away. Recently, though, Zarzar has seen a substantial decrease in donations from individuals and vendors. Even the Food Bank, which stabilizes her stock when other donors fall through, is showing cracks.
Two weeks ago, when Zarzar logged on to the Food Bank website to view the list of food available through The Emergency Food Assistance Program, she got quite a shock.
“The list is blank. I've never seen that before in my life.”
Carol Schneider, the Food Bank's associate director of media, was not surprised. “We just don't have as much as we did, which is why she is seeing the cutbacks. We can only give what we have.”
Schneider said The Emergency Food Assistance Program is just one of many to be drained of funds as Congress seeks to lock in $900 million in cuts over the next 10 years.
“Initially, we thought our loss from the Congressional budget cuts might be one-sixth of our food supply, or 10 million meals for the next year,” she said in an email. “However the debt ceiling bill changes that. Essentially, everything is now up for grabs. Which means, the outcome could be worse.”
Washington's budget negotiations present an uncertain future for the Food Bank, the pantries it supports, and for the growing number of New Yorkers unable to put food on their tables. Patrons of Hannah's have the added task of finding food that satisfies their Kosher lifestyles.
So Zarzar must find ways to expand and diversify her supply of Kosher food. And while donations might increase during the upcoming Jewish holidays, food purveyors are often too busy to organize a food pantry drop.
“It's a challenge, and it's disappointing,” she admits. “But there's next week, and hopefully we can get our act together, and everybody can pool in.
“It's a community affair – it's not just one person's job,” she adds. “Everybody has to do their job – the wholesalers, the vendors the food pantry, the people, and like this, we make it happen.”
Read the rest of our 'Lunchtime, Tuesday' reports:
At Brooklyn Pantries & Kitchens, New Need is Getting Old