Thanksgiving 2011: The fight against hunger continues

AMBER TAFARI LARAQUE Special to the AmNews | 11/23/2011, 2:56 p.m.

The late-fall, early winter season brings about a series of holidays filled with joy and festivities. Thanksgiving, followed by Christmas, Kwanzaa and the New Year gets families together to celebrate with food and gifts, making it the "happiest time of year."

This same season also brings about some of the most brutal weather, and for those without a home or food, an environment that is seemingly impossible to survive in.

With Thanksgiving kicking off the holiday season, organizations around the city are making it their business to give less fortunate residents a Thanksgiving to remember.

The East Harlem Cares Coalition, in conjunction with elected officials, nonprofit organizations, the East Harlem Restaurant and Bar Association, East Harlem Business Capital Corporation (EHBCC) and local business owners, hosted their Annual Free Thanksgiving Dinner on Wednesday, Nov. 23, from 12 to 4 p.m. at the Holy Rosary Church in East Harlem.

Kevin Walters, owner of East Harlem's Creole Supper Club, was one of the frontrunners of this event. With Creole having cooked at least 20 turkeys and other dishes, Walters explained that it is not easy to put together an event like this. "This year has been a struggle, almost a nightmare for me," Walters said.

While he loves putting together an event such as this, and contributes every year, he says participation from other restaurants was minimal this year. "The weight is on two groups: Creole Lounge and Sterling Caterers. Four restaurants went out of business, who were major contributors," he said.

Walters did highlight that there were groups within EHBCC helping and that a new partner, the Hunter College School of Social Work, assisted in the cause as well.

Still, he pointed out that although restaurants do volunteer food, it is not enough. "Some restaurants gave only a tray; the best restaurants did not give. Maybe they're part of the 1 percent. Maybe the more you have, the less you give."

Volunteering and donating food is one way that New Yorkers have been standing against hunger. Others, like Mark Dunlea, associate director of the Hunger Action Network, believe that in order to change things, elected officials need to hear from the people.

He challenged the moral character of some politicians when it came to their priorities. "We claim to be a Christian nation. If God was standing with you he'd be asking, 'What are you doing to help the poor?'"

On Monday, Dunlea along with Rev. Ozzie Edwards, director of Harlem Community Nutrition Services, a food pantry; Rev. Earl Kooperkamp of St. Mary's Episcopal Church, which runs a food pantry; and Terri Scofield of the Universal Living Wage Campaign held an anti-hunger news conference in front of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office in Manhattan.

Dunlea does the conference every year, every Monday before Thanksgiving, but pointed out that the fight for hunger must happen "every day, not just Thanksgiving."

The Hunger Action Network has been passionate about battling hunger across in the city, throughout the year, especially in Harlem. Community-supported agriculture, an alternative food network in which a community of people buys a share from a farmer and the farmer drops off freshly grown goods, has been a method that Dunlea finds encouraging. "We set three CSAs in the community in West Harlem," said Dunlea.

Both Walters and Dunlea agree that the fight against hunger cannot happen once a year. Dunlea even believes there is an excess of volunteers during the Thanksgiving season. "Volunteer in January," he said.

Outside of Thanksgiving, Creole Supper Club organizes toy drives and assists other events to aid those who are struggling in Harlem. "We're true to what we do," said Walters. "This is how we live. We have uplifted the East Harlem community by bringing music arts and culture."

Winning the battle against hunger will not happen overnight, and is not easy, but to Walters, all of his efforts were worth it. "We anticipate 500 families. The biggest thing I'd really like to see is that people come away with lots of hope that things will get better."