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:
At 12:45 p.m., there were a few clusters of people waiting outside the door of Trinity Human Service Center at 153 Johnson Ave. in Bushwick. Deliveries for the food pantry arrive once a month on a Monday; distributions are made the following Tuesday-Friday, from 9 a.m. til noon and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Phil Diaz, 46, has been coming to the center for food since he moved into the neighborhood two years earlier, after he was laid off from a job he had held for 20 years as a forklift operator in Queens. He has a 26-year-old daughter, but was only getting food for himself.
“Believe me, I'm glad they have it once a month. There are kids out there who are hungry besides us,” Diaz said.
Diaz was standing and chatting with his neighbor, Jerome Fogg, 61. They live in the same building and moved in around the same time. Fogg, who is single, has been waiting for a kidney transplant for three and a half years, and gets dialysis three times a week in Bushwick. Before he became ill, he worked for the city Parks Department. Now, he survives on food stamps and the food pantry.
By 12:55 p.m., a few more people had joined the line. Clara Lee, 87, has lived down the street in the same apartment for 45 years. This was her third visit to the Trinity food pantry. She was pleased with the variety of foods she received last time – fresh bananas and apples, canned corn, whole wheat bread and muffins and a bag of white rice. Lee's husband died 33 years ago, and she lives on a monthly social security check of $759.
“I'd wait two or three hours if I have to. I won't complain. I'm too old for stress,” she said. “I try to balance this with my food stamps.”
At 1:10 p.m., Clara Lee waved hello to a few women who've joined the line. Word has spread that they won't be let in until 1:30 p.m.
Catherine Peppers-Hill waited with a patient smile. She's been coming “from time to time” to the Trinity food pantry over the past three years, since she retired from her work as an ESL teacher and actress. She also goes to pantries, including one on Myrtle Avenue and Open Door on Greene Avenue. She receives a Social Security check at the end of each month, but said this month was tight; after paying all of her bills this week, she had just $11 left in her bank account.
Peppers-Hill had just eaten lunch at the Borinquen Plaza Senior Center in the Borinquen projects. Lunch is offered daily there to seniors for a donation of $1.25.
At 1:15 p.m., two women walked past handing out leaflets advertising an upcoming flea market. Peppers-Hill introduced one of the women, who has a role in Peppers-Hill's soon-to-be-produced play. Peppers-Hill said she planned to donate some of the proceeds to local food pantries, including Trinity.
At 1:20 p.m., Judy Williams, 44, arrived at Trinity food pantry for the first time, perspiring and a little winded after taking four buses. She had been to St. John's Bread and Life on Lexington Avenue in Brooklyn earlier in the day, but left there empty-handed because that center didn't have enough food for everyone who turned up.
She said St. John's gave her a pamphlet listing other food pantries throughout Brooklyn; that's how she found Trinity. Williams, an at-home mom with six-year-old twins, said she was frustrated that she had to trek around, and thinks there shouldn't be a registration process at food pantries.
“If you're hungry, you should have access to food,” she said. “I've been jumping from place to play, just hoping and praying.”
“I'm not making a career of this,” she said of going to pantries. “I'm not greedy.”
At 1:25 p.m., Williams greeted another woman who just showed up, and explained how she had been turned away at St. John's. “Everyone got there so early. What was there was gone when I got there,” Williams said.
The other woman, Elizabeth Overton, 29, said she lives with her mother, who gets food stamps, and her sister, who has two kids and is also on food stamps. This month has been difficult because her mother's caseworker is holding up some paperwork, Overton said, and her mother is planning to take the caseworker to court.
Overton said she had been to the Trinity food pantry before. “They give you a lot of bread,” she said. “I wish there was more meat.”
By 1:35 p.m., several women had taken out umbrellas to shield themselves from the sun. A man emerged from the building, and asked people to form one line. They obliged. He walked down the line handing out tickets.
Still standing in line at 1:40 p.m., with no one being allowed in yet, a few people begin complaining, some in English and some in Spanish.
Inside at 1:42 p.m., Yahaira Deras, 34, the administrator of Trinity Human Services Center for 11 years, said she grew up in the neighborhood. When she started her job, the pantry fed 200 to 300 people per month, distributed pamphlets around the neighborhood advertising free food. Now the pantry feeds up to 2,200 per month, and doesn't need to advertise. Sometimes people are turned away when the pantry runs out of food. Many people are regulars.
Deras said Trinity gets donations from various places, including United Way and the Food Bank for New York City: “Whatever we get – pasta, rice, juice, canned goods,” she said. The center also receives occasional donations from a nearby Muslim center that gets donations of fresh fruit, vegetables and other items from Trader Joe's.
Deras said there have been more complaints lately from people coming to the pantry. Donations of food have been down, she said, because of tight budgets at both United Way and the Food Bank. “We've never had to turn away this many people,” Deras said.
When she has to turn people away or shut down the pantry for the month, Deras gives people the city's emergency food and hunger hotline number. She said the Trinity pantry tries to keep a couple of emergency bags of food as backup, too.
She didn't offered annual statistics indicating that the number of clients fed this year will be fewer than last year.
2007: 20,564 clients fed
Since Jan. 2011: 15,192
At 2:02 p.m., people were still waiting on line outside.
Read the rest of our 'Lunchtime, Tuesday' reports:
At Brooklyn Pantries & Kitchens, New Need is Getting Old