With reporting by Tom DiChristopher
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:
A man sticks his head inside the front door and said, “I got a question for ya – is there enough in there for all of us?” Nobody waiting in line knows. Most shrug.
It's a little after 1 p.m. on a Tuesday at the Bed-Stuy Campaign Against Hunger. About 20 people are lined up and ready to pick up their groceries. The Campaign operates a “superpantry” model that aims to empower customers by allowing them to select their own boxes, cans and packages of groceries. But as more people visit the food pantry and less funding is granted to the program, the amount of free food available to each person is shrinking.
“I have seen less produce, less food, less funding, less everything,” said program manager Tamara Dawson. “But more people.”
When Dawson started working with Campaign's superpantry in 2006, it was serving about 3,000 people per month. Now it has an average of 11,000 customers monthly, which is high for this time of year. She expects that number to continue rising, especially during the always-busier winter and holiday months.
Around 1:30 p.m. the line is growing longer. A volunteer is admitting three people at a time. When it's his turn, Roscoe Hinds, 48, walks down the hall and grabs a small shopping cart. He's been visiting the superpantry for the past eight months.
“Either or, hot or cold,” a volunteer said, giving Hinds the choice of corn flakes, instant grits or quick oats. He chooses the corn flakes, thanks the volunteer, and moves on to the produce section.
“One thing I've found is a lot of people just expect to get it and they don't say thank you as much as they should,” he said.
Patrons at the superpantry can pick up dry goods once per month – enough for nine meals, said the organization – and select produce once a week. The amount of groceries clients receive depends on the size of their households. One woman stands outside with a box of food she's been told is for a family of four. In the box is 16 ounces of whole wheat macaroni, 24 ounces of enriched grits, a six-pack each of snack-sized applesauce and raisins, a cantaloupe, a carton of plum tomatoes, a bag of small potatoes, a large chicken breast, and two cans of kidney beans.
Christena Lawyer, 67, said while she is thankful for the service that Campaign Against Hunger is providing, she can't ignore that things have changed in the past year.
“Now everything is dwindling down. I've come here a couple times and left with nothing,” she said.
At 1:40 p.m., she walks out with a couple of bags, including applesauce and a package of tomatoes.. “It's nothing too special today,” she said. “It is less than usual.”
At 2:10 p.m., Vincent Perry, 48, has to choose for his kids, ages 9 and 11: applesauce or apple juice? He can't have both.
“My kids like applesauce,” he muses. “But they also love apple juice.” He finally settles on the applesauce.
“Last time there was a little more,” he said. “But I'm grateful for what I got.”
Some clients in the line say they frequent two or more pantries, and they compare and contrast the service and the selection. Bernadette Reed, a 26-year-old unemployed social worker, said the food lasts her a week and she's happy with the service. She can't afford to buy groceries at the places where she'd like to shop.
“I think a place like this is a blessing,” Reed said. “I can't complain. I can't go to Trader Joe's or Whole Foods right now.”