National News

New York’s Emergency Food Program Gets More Funding, but Will It Be Enough?

Posted July 8, 2018 3:51 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — At $24.7 million, the funding for an emergency food program represents a tiny fraction of New York City’s $89 billion budget.

But for many of the more than 500 food pantries and soup kitchens that rely on the anti-hunger program, the money is a lifeline.

In recent years, the program has faced financial instability and has needed last-minute infusions of money to fill financing gaps. But this year, the City Council raised the amount set aside for the program beyond what the mayor’s office had originally proposed, which was $8 million. Corey Johnson, the speaker of the City Council who had made additional funding for the program a priority, called the increase “a really big deal for creating more certainty and security moving forward for the organizations that do this work.”

The program distributes money to the Food Bank for New York City, a nonprofit that supplies food pantries and soup kitchens that are part of the emergency food network. In 2017, 40 percent of the food pantries and soup kitchens in the network said they did not have enough food to meet demand, forcing them to turn people away or reduce the amount given out.

One of the programs that did not have enough supplies was Reaching-Out Community Services, a food pantry in the borough of Brooklyn that serves about 4,000 people every month.

Tom Neve, the program’s executive director, said that the guarantee of more funds would help him avoid having to make difficult decisions.

“It was either get more food or reject people from coming to get help,” he said.

Nadine Joseph, 66, has been traveling to the pantry in the Bensonhurst neighborhood since she retired a few months ago from her job as a home care worker and has had a hard time making ends meet on her fixed income. On this particular day, her haul back home included milk and rice.

“With the food, I have more money to pay my rent,” she said.

In recent years, as the cost of living in New York has risen, particularly for housing, more people are having a difficult time feeding themselves, advocates for the poor said. The meal gap, which measures whether households are missing meals for financial reasons, has gone up steadily for the past several years, according to the Food Bank for New York City.

Neve said the emergency food program was not Reaching-Out’s lone source of food. The pantry also relies on another organization, City Harvest, and food drives run by neighborhood groups, like Our Mary Mother of Jesus Church. Still, he says that without the program, he would be unable to keep the pantry open.

New Yorkers have become increasingly reliant on the emergency food program, which originally was intended to subsidize an individual or family’s monthly food supply when it was created by the city in 1984. That dependence has been exacerbated by cuts to the federal food stamp program, said Triada Stampas, vice president of research and public affairs at the Food Bank.

Stampas said an $8.7 billion cut to the program in 2014 has contributed to the uptick in hungry New Yorkers. In June, the House of Representatives passed a version of the farm bill that would trim the food stamp program by an additional $20 billion. The Senate version of the bill leaves food stamp funding untouched.

In New York City in 2017, $2.9 billion in food stamps was distributed to 1.6 million people, and any reduction in benefits would add to the pressure on the emergency food program to fill the void, Stampas said. In 2017, the program provided about 12 percent of all meals distributed by soup kitchens and food pantries.

New Yorkers who rely both on food stamps and the food they get from either pantries or soup kitchens said they are alarmed at the prospect of more cuts.

Benny Bryant, 50, is a volunteer and a client at Neighbors Together, a soup kitchen in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. He said his $186 in monthly benefits from food stamps typically lasts him about two weeks, forcing him to eat lunch and dinner at Neighbors Together as often as four days per week. He also collects food from the Bedford-Stuyvesant Campaign Against Hunger.

Unable to work after having prostate and colon cancer, Bryant said losing even some of his food stamp benefits would essentially force his wife and their two children into homelessness.

“I don’t want to say the word because I don’t believe in putting things in the air,” he said. “But you know, it could look bad.” For now, Stampas said the increased funding for the emergency food program will help fill some of the gaps in the food safety net, but still leaves many families in dire situations.

“We live in a resource-rich country,” she said. “We have food in the United States. What makes a person food insecure is the fact that they can’t afford it.”