Campaign Against Hunger food pantry

Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

Mayor Blasio visits the Campaign Against Hunger food pantry in Brooklyn on Tuesday.

Among the many dilemmas facing New York amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, one of the biggest is how to make sure that city residents can still feed themselves.  Even as food pantries and soup kitchens are shutting their doors thanks to a lack of volunteers, soaring unemployment and stay-at-home orders threaten to escalate the city’s food crisis — which already affects nearly one in eight New Yorkers at the best of times — to emergency levels.

Melony Samuels, executive director of the Bed-Stuy Campaign Against Hunger, says she’s seen the number of people lining up for food aid more than triple, to 3,500 families a day. “People who usually are on computers have rolled up their sleeves and they’re packing bags,” she says. “We just spent today $14,000 on buying rice alone — that will serve us for a week.”

Fortunately, New York has been able to put multiple measures into place to get food quickly onto local families’ tables, say hunger advocates. The city has been “proactive” in addressing food needs, says Liz Accles, executive director of Community Food Advocates, feeding hundreds of thousands of people through “meal hubs” set up at otherwise-closed city schools; the state, meanwhile, has plans to use federal school-lunch funds and other money approved by Congressional stimulus bills to provide supplemental cash aid to local families.

But while the meal hubs have drawn praise, there are still gaps in how many meals they can provide, to whom, and at what times. And such measures as supplemental SNAP benefits are being held up by the slow pace of the approval process in Washington.

A survey released Tuesday by Hunger Free America found that financial hardship had led 38 percent of New York City parents to cut the size of meals or skip meals for their children over the past month.

“Food is one of the first things people need when their typical resources and support dry up,” says Center on Budget and Policy Priorities senior policy analyst Ed Bolen. The challenge, he says, is how to ramp up emergency food provision in the midst of both increased need and government agencies that themselves are struggling with more workers calling in sick or having to learn how to work from home.

City innovates to feed

New York City got around at least one of these obstacles by taking advantage of workers who were already in place. The week after schools shut down, the city Department of Education set up its meal hubs, opening them to adults 11 days later on April 3. According to the mayor’s office, they are currently providing 200,000 meals a day, which can be picked up at more than 400 schools across the city by anyone who needs them; New Yorkers can receive as many as three meals at once for both themselves and their children, and vegetarian and halal options are available.

Utilizing school cafeteria facilities, and workers, that otherwise would have been idle was a smart move, says Accles. “School food has really unmatched operational ability, serving 900,000 meals a day — that’s pretty amazing,” she says. “Part of the challenge of this illness is that people are supposed to stay home and be as little exposed as possible. The fact that there are 400-some-odd school buildings that are open and prepared to give three meals a day to each person in a household, that’s no small thing.”

Of course, this means 700,000 fewer meals are being served than on a normal school day. Even if many students are able to get sufficient food at home — New York has had universal free lunch since 2017 — that still could be leaving many families that normally rely on school meals without sufficient food access, especially if they aren’t able to easily access a meal hub near them. (Meal hubs are currently only open on weekdays, but City Hall spokesperson Laura Feyer says that “we will continue to monitor our food operations to ensure New Yorkers are getting what they need.”)

The city has also taken advantage of another idle resource — out-of-work cab drivers — to provide home delivery of food to homebound seniors or the medically vulnerable, something that is especially urgent now that many senior centers that normally provide meals-to-go have shuttered to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Sanitation commissioner Kathryn Garcia, who has been appointed the city’s emergency “food czar,” first told City & State in late March that a system utilizing city taxi drivers to pick up and deliver food from meal hubs was in the works; the network, according to Feyer, now employs about 1,200 TLC drivers per shift and 10,000 overall, delivering close to 100,000 meals per day, including weekends.

Financial and other questions remain

There remain questions on how long this current situation will last, and how it will all be paid for; the federal CARES Act provides $8.8 billion nationwide for food programs, but the exact reimbursement mechanism likely won’t be worked out for a while. Asked about the cost of food distribution at his press conference on Saturday, de Blasio replied, “I’m very, very worried about the food situation,” noting that even once stay-at-home measures are lifted, the economic impacts could stretch into the fall. 

With so much work being done across different agencies, there isn’t a full picture yet of who’s spending what how fast; funding for cab-driver deliveries, for example, is going through the Sanitation Department, according to Independent Budget Office chief of staff Doug Turetsky, but the city is coding all its coronavirus-related spending in hopes of eventual reimbursement from Washington, similarly to how city costs were repaid after Superstorm Sandy. According to IBO, which has established its own COVID-19 spending tracker, from March 10 through April 11 the city had already spent about $61.5 million in food-related expenses connected with the coronavirus.

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While providing direct meals is one part of the city’s normal hunger-prevention efforts, an even bigger one is putting cash directly into people’s pockets so they can buy groceries of their own. About 1.5 million New Yorkers receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) worth $219 million a month, a figure that is expected to soar as more people find themselves out of work and eligible for food aid.

In its Families First Coronavirus Response Act, passed nine days before the CARES Act, the federal government approved two major expansions of federal food aid. First, under the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer program, federal school-lunch money would instead be distributed to states to provide to residents on the EBT cash cards that are currently used for SNAP. New York state has submitted a plan to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to automatically add P-EBT money to the cards of families that already receive SNAP — covering 876,000 children statewide — and use Medicaid and school registration information to mail cards to families of schoolkids that don’t already have them. Importantly, this would include families of undocumented immigrant students, who are currently ineligible for SNAP and who have been excluded from other federal pandemic aid such as stimulus checks.

Doubts about next steps

But though P-EBT was passed on March 18 and New York state submitted its plan on March 25, it can’t be implemented until the USDA signs off on it. The department has only approved two state plan so far — Michigan’s on April 9 and Rhode Island’s on April 13 — and New York’s remains on hold for now.

“It’s troubling that it took so long, given that kids have been out of school for as much as a month or so by now,” says Bolen. “My understanding is that New York does have a request in, and our hope is whatever took them so long, they can now start cranking out some approvals.”

In response to City Limits queries about the timeline of future approvals, USDA responded with a statement from agriculture secretary Sonny Perdue: “USDA is maximizing our services and flexibilities to ensure children and others who need food can get it during this Coronavirus epidemic. This is a challenging time for many Americans, but it is reassuring to see President Trump and our fellow Americans stepping up to the challenges facing us to make sure kids and those facing hunger are fed.”

The FFCRA also eased rules for who can receive food aid — work requirements, for example, are now suspended until the federal government lifts its public health emergency declaration — and allowed the department to provide emergency supplemental food aid to families already receiving SNAP. But Bolen and other food advocates were disappointed in how USDA has interpreted this provision: While the act provides emergency allotments of SNAP funds to states with emergency or disaster declarations — which is now all 50 states — USDA has kept in place maximum limits for SNAP aid per family. That means that, as a group of CBPP hunger experts wrote last week, roughly 7 million households nationwide that have already maxed out their SNAP won’t be eligible for increased aid, a group that includes the poorest American families. (USDA maintains that the FFCRA prohibits giving emergency allotments above the existing cap, but did not provide an explanation for its reasoning.)

Whether the delay is due to political pressure or mere red tape — Bolen notes that USDA has been “hit with the whammy of shutting down offices and trying to get workers to work remotely” even while facing an unprecedented amount of incoming paperwork — the response to the ongoing crisis is showing both the difficulties and the promise of providing governmental aid to fight hunger. At his Saturday press conference, de Blasio promised, “We literally have to have a simple standard: No New Yorker goes without food,” something that food advocates hope can be a lesson for better times.

“This highlights the drastic gaps in income and the poverty rates in the city, and longstanding income-related food needs,” says Accles. In a crisis, she notes, it turns out there are creative ways to get people fed. “I hope this calls some questions for all levels of government about addressing some of these real issues in an ongoing way.”

Adds Samuels, “They need to get a council together that will come back to the table and say, ‘Where did we go wrong?’ If this ever happens, what kind of infrastructure we need to set up that we will never be kicked off our feet like this again.”

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