Advocates Want Menu of City Policies to Address Hunger

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New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio dines at Goodfellas Pizza on Staten Island on Friday, January 10, 2014

Rob Bennett for the Office of Mayor Bill de Blasio

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio dines at Goodfellas Pizza on Staten Island on Friday, January 10, 2014

As Bill de Blasio’s first year as mayor of New York City comes to an end, anti-hunger activists are still waiting for him to follow through on his campaign pledge to mandate school breakfast in the classroom.

National surveys by the Food Research Action Center shows that the city ranks dead last among large cities in terms of participation in the school breakfast program. The city does offer schools the option to provide students breakfast in the homeroom but after eight years of that voluntary program, only a quarter of schools participate.

The simplest way for the mayor to reduce hunger would be to require every school to offer students the opportunity for a free breakfast in the classroom—a position that de Blasio say he would implement if elected. It has yet to occur a year into his tenure, though there are rumors that a proposal is being floated within the administration.

The mayor and the school chancellor have also been slow to embrace the the broadly supported campaign for free universal school lunches. They only agreed to pilot the program in middle schools despite the City Council putting money in the budget to implement it in all schools. Many anti-hunger advocates feel that the breakfast program is even more critical to reducing hunger – and the mandate would not cost the city additional funds.

I have met de Blasio on the street twice since he took over City Hall and both times he re-affirmed his commitment to mandate breakfast in the classroom. Since the mayor controls the schools and appoints the chancellor, one has to wonder what explains the holdup.

A broader menu

Hunger Action is also disappointed by the unwillingness of the de Blasio administration to create a food policy council for the city to help coordinate private and government action on food related issues. More than 200 other cities and state governments have done so.

It is true that under prior administrations, New York has done a better job than most cities in starting programs such as Health Bucks, Healthy Bodegas and Green Carts while supporting an expansion of farmers markets. There is increasing support to use the city’s purchasing power to promote local foods (though the city’s schools appear to be lagging even though they are the second largest purchaser of food in the country.)

But New York City is home to one of the most vibrant food industries and movements in the world. There is a wealth of ideas and solutions that should be tapped into to promote healthier foods, to protect the regional food shed (like the city has done with water), reduce hunger and improve the wages and working conditions of food industry workers. And the city needs to ensure that its food system will function during emergencies such as Hurricane Sandy.

A food council that brought together the various stakeholders in the city’s food system is long overdue.

Ingredients of a crisis

Hunger doesn’t appear out of thin air. It’s a byproduct of economic exclusion and income inequality—problems that de Blasio ran against in his campaign as mayor, targeted in some of his first-year policy initiatives and, in the year to come, could do much more about.

De Blasio based his campaign on “a tale of two cities” and does deserve credit for pushing several policies aimed at reducing the disparities between haves and have-nots in the five boroughs. He won support for universal pre-k from Albany, though not higher taxes on the wealthy, and has sought to increase the number of affordable housing units included in new construction. One of his first actions was to push through a paid sick-leave bill that will help 500,000 city workers.

Hunger Action and other anti-poverty advocates also applaud the mayor’s appointment of Steven Banks as head of the Human Resources Administration. Banks has implemented a number of reforms to make it easier for low-income New Yorkers to receive the public benefits they are entitled to. Banks said he would phase out the ineffective workfare program that has failed to help participants find jobs.

The mayor’s call for state lawmakers to allow the city to set a higher minimum wage for all workers unfortunately is stalled, but he did provide a small hike under the city’s living wage law for the workers covered by it. New York’s minimum wage of $8 an hour is woefully inadequate, a sub poverty wage (it will rise to $8.75 in the new year and to $9 the year after). We need a living wage of at least $15 an hour.

But many minimum wage workers in the city don’t even get the $8 an hour due to lax enforcement. Rather than a floor, the minimum wage is a ceiling for many in the city.

That’s why low-income advocates would like the mayor to provide leadership in pushing for a crackdown on the epidemic of wage theft that is estimated to cost low-income workers a billion dollars a year in the city. More than a third of the guests at food pantries and soup kitchens have a job but they receive sub-poverty paychecks.

Other city officials, such as Public Advocate Letitia James, have spoken on out on the issue. Low-income worker groups such as the National Mobilization Against Sweatshops and Chinese Staff Workers Association have been pressuring Governor Cuomo to strengthen the state’s Labor Department action against wage theft but without much success. A report by the State Comptroller showed a backlog of more than 15,000 cases with a delay of two or more years. Requests for more labor department investigators and stronger laws have been rejected. A recent report by the federal Labor Department confirmed that wage theft among minimum wage workers is a major problem in New York.

In addition to the power to regulate minimum wages, the mayor should press state lawmakers and the governor to give the city the authority to pursue wage thieves.

An appetite for change

The fact is, hunger is on the rise in New York. A recent report by the NYC Coalition Against Hunger found a 7 percent increase in the number of people using emergency food programs over the last year; the number of guests has basically doubled since the Great Recession started in 2007. And one needn’t look far beyond hunger statistics to find other indicators of deepening need in the city: The number of people in shelters has risen to nearly 60,000 nightly, including more than 25,000 children.

Fortunately for the city, there are options on the table for addressing that broader crisis. Hunger Action, for instance, wants the city to allocate a significant portion of the half-billion-dollar welfare block grant it receives from the state to fund more jobs for public assistance recipients.

Some ideas come from unexpected players. Senator Jeff Klein, whose Independent Democratic Caucus alliance with Republicans stalled so much progressive legislation in the past two years, recently proposed allocating $1.5 billion of the state’s $5 billion to create a public works, community-style jobs program. This puts a major public jobs WPA-styled initiative into the debate at the capitol for the first time in decades.

Hunger has continued to rise during de Blasio’s tenure. The best solution to hunger remains ending poverty, which means higher wages, better jobs (including public ones), affordable housing and better education. Short term, expanding participation in the federal nutrition programs is the best way to reduce hunger. Following through on his promise to have schools participate in the breakfast in the class room program would be a great holiday gift to New York’s hungry children.