Adi Talwar

On a recent Thursday In the Highbridge section of the Bronx, Nora Nunez serving clients at a community food pantry run by the Muslim Women's Institute for Research and Development.

The Muslim Women’s Institute for Research and Development in the Highbridge section of the Bronx has operated a Halal Food Pantry since 1997. After a nearby food pantry closed last summer, Sultana Ocasio, the organization’s executive director, says the lines got longer. She’s seen a 20 percent increase in the number of people looking to collect bags of food, she says, a number which doesn’t including those who are turned away.

“We don’t have enough food, not nearly enough food,” she says.

Direct funding is one factor in that equation. Others are ripple effects. The nearby pantry which closed did so after many years due to costs it could no longer sustain, she says, but the volumes of people turning to her pantry also results from the numerous homeless shelters in the neighborhood.

“They don’t get food at the shelter, they just get places to live,” she says, adding that “we have seen families walking for miles actually, with strollers, just to find a food pantry that will serve them.”

“We can’t sustain another blow,” Ocasio says. “We’re already working with so little.”

She was among those gathered on the City Hall steps last month to protest what advocates said were $4.9 million in proposed cuts in the mayor’s proposed budget for the Emergency Food Assistance Program, which supports soup kitchens and food pantries. The final budget added $18.4 million to the program, which the mayor had long said he had no intention of cutting.

But advocates still want to see feeding the hungry on the agenda in the coming months as the city gears up for municipal races.

The issue takes on a particular prominence in light of President Donald Trump’s proposed budget, which cuts the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) by more than $193 billion over a decade and emergency food funding by $27 million from current levels.

“There may be a tendency to think that because the main parts of the safety net that protect people against hunger in this country are federal, that there isn’t anything that you can do at the local level and that’s not true,” Triada Stampas, vice president for research and public affairs for Food Bank For New York City, says, adding that “there are local initiatives that can absolutely make a difference for people in need.”

One example, according to Joel Berg, CEO of the New York City-based nonprofit Hunger Free America, is expanding the Breakfast in the Classroom program that Mayor Bill de Blasio committed to for every elementary school. According to de Blasio’s office, while every elementary schools already offered free breakfast, the city began offering breakfast in classrooms in 2015, with the idea that more children are likely to participate that way. Under the recently adopted budget, every elementary school will offer the program, according to his office, as well as any middle school “co-housed” with one.

Berg would like to see the city eventually go even further by implementing the program in every high school and middle school.

He explains that nationally, many more children receive free lunch than breakfast and that has an impact on education. The de Blasio administration says it is “exploring further expansion.”

But addressing hunger, advocates say, is not just about access to food. It is affected more broadly by affordability, health and poverty issues that they want to see make it into the platforms of various candidates running for office.

“We live in an expensive city. We have one of the highest housing costs in the country; we have some of the highest healthcare costs; we have some of the highest costs of all kinds of essentials. And so what we’re seeing, and what we’re seeing especially in parts of the city where rents are going up very quickly, we’re also seeing food insecurity go up because what happens in a household budget for a low-income household is first and foremost a family will prioritize keeping a roof over their head,” Stampas says.

According to the organization, Brooklynites spend nearly two-thirds of their income on rent. “We’re able to track the meal gap at a pretty granular level and we see that it does match up against some of these other costs,” Stampas says.

Berg, for one, says the questions he wants local candidates to answer are: “Who’s gonna push even more to strengthen, expand minimum-wage laws?” and “Who’s going to really fight for affordable housing?”

“Those are definitely food issues,” he says. “When people spend all their money on housing they don’t have enough money for food.”

Berg says homelessness should also be on the agenda of candidates vying for office. He supports the mayor’s idea of siting homeless shelters so that people can stay in their own neighborhoods. Keeping people close to home makes it easier for school-aged children to get to school on time to receive free breakfast, and for adults to get and keep jobs, he says. And on a more ideological level, he supports pushing back against what he describes as the dehumanization of poor people that sometimes crops up in the NIMBY arguments made by those who oppose shelters in their own neighborhoods.

“When you make people less than human, or scary, then it’s a short jump to take away their housing or take away their food,” he says.

Charles Platkin, executive director of New York City Food Policy Center at Hunter College, takes a different tack. He says he would like to see the candidates, specifically those running for mayor, to prioritize public health issues around food and physical activity.

One idea he’d like to see candidates pitch is the creation of a citywide office to coordinate those efforts. This office, he says, would have an overview of the various efforts around issues such as hunger, food-related chronic disease, nutrition, physical activity and connected public health issues.

Right now, he says, there is a lot of duplication of efforts, especially in taking on the “sexy” topics.

“There’s not someone looking at this from a 10-foot view,” he says, and proposing an office to do so would be a powerful platform for candidates to run on.

The city budget for fiscal 2018, which was passed this week, also includes money for a significant expansion of universal free school lunch, a longstanding policy goal of anti-hunger advocates, who believe that the stigma associated with getting “free lunch” deters thousands of students from using the benefits to which they are entitled. Under the new deal, all schools where 70 percent or more of students are eligible for free lunch will be part of the universal-free program. According to Liz Accles of Community Food Advocates, the expansion means 90 percent of schools (adding 890 schools to the 565 already covered) and 84 percent of students (adding 475,000 kids to the 353,000 students already covered) will receive universal free lunch.

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CityPlate, City Limits’ series on food policy, is supported by the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund. City Limits is solely responsible for the content.