Earlier this month, when the AmNews visited Food Bank For New York City’s Community Kitchen & Food Pantry, a program of Food Bank For New York City in Harlem, the New Hampshire primaries hadn’t taken place yet. But wealth and income inequality continue to remain the topic du jour among Americans, especially in New York City.
African-Americans experience both poverty and food insecurity at significantly higher than average rates. In New York City alone, 1.4 million residents rely on food pantries and soup kitchens (in 2012, half of those residents were identified as African-American) and 23 percent of Black New Yorkers live below the poverty line. The average for New York City overall is 20.9 percent.
With cuts to the SNAP program, more Black families in the city are making their way toward the food pantries and soup kitchens run by Food Bank. Since Nov. 2013, residents in the five boroughs have lost more than 116 million meals due to SNAP cuts, which has led to 9 out of 10 of Food Bank’s facilities seeing an increase in demand.
The organization’s community kitchen and food pantry on West 116th Street, between Frederick Douglass and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boulevards, distributes 50,000 free meals monthly and has been serving the Harlem area for more than 30 years. On a February weekday afternoon, the AmNews received tour of the facility with Food Bank’s Vice President of Community Relations, Dr. Camesha Grant.
With some Harlemites holding shopping carts waiting to shop the pantry downstairs and older Harlemites eating lunch in the kitchen section of the building, Grant discussed what Food Bank is all about and why they exist.
“In 2013, we saw huge cuts to SNAP because of the (last child reauthorization act),” said Grant to the AmNews. “So as those monthly allowances were cut down, what ended up happening was that families had a harder time making ends meet. So we started seeing more families and longer lines and the same people coming back more frequently.”
So how’s Food Bank handling the cuts?
“It’s a challenge because they mean we need additional resources to cover the need,” said Grant. “What we know across the network is that certain pantries have had to ration food.”
The meal gap is the way to measure the number of meals that families miss. Most of the areas in the five boroughs that have meal gaps of 4.3 million or more for 2015 can be found in Upper Manhattan, Southeast Brooklyn, Eastern Queens and much of The Bronx. In 2015, Central Harlem (Community Board 10) had a collective meal gap of 5.7 million meals. In both East Harlem (CB 11) and West Harlem (CB 9) the meal gap was 4.3 million meals.
Grant directed AmNews to the POS (Paperless Office System) section of the community kitchen where people who come to the pantry can check to see if they’re eligible for other government programs. “So when they come in for food, we want to do (a full-on assessment) to really determine their eligibility for SNAP. Anybody who comes in who displays that need, we want them to come down and sit here and give them an opportunity to apply.”
“They can come here, bring the appropriate documentation and apply right in this space,” said Grant. “It’s an opportunity for us to maximize the moment that they’re here by engaging them in other conversations about the other needs they have that led them to this line.”
Its clear how much Food Bank means to the people who use it. In the community kitchen’s dining area, older Harlem residents who participate in the program greet workers by name and talk about their day. One spoke happily about a conversation she had with a cook over recommended changes to the food served. At the time, Food Bank (which is only open on weekdays), was planning a special “Souper Bowl Sunday” party to be held in the kitchen area. Back over on the pantry side, a young mother – who wished to remain anonymous – spoke with the AmNews while shopping for new items in the pantry. The woman has one child and she lives with her parents and grandparents in the same apartment.
“Sometimes you have to make ends meet and this help poor families, you know,” she said. “I found out about Food Bank because one of my neighbors used to come here and sometimes she would share some of her stuff with me when I was low with my groceries.”
When asked how much Food Bank means to her the young woman said “It means a lot. It goes a long way. It helps feed families.” She said that she comes to Food Bank to feed her child and her grandparents mostly.
But Food Bank is working against the tide and working for those without. From now until whenever, they feel they’re poised to look out for the needs of poor and working class New Yorkers.
“It’s not just about food, it’s about getting connected to a long term sustainable opportunities to take care of yourself and your family,” said Grant.