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Citizens Union

Hunger and Obesity In The Two New Yorks

Working at the Yorkville Common Pantry on East 109th Street in East Harlem, Deborah Goldstein decided to do something different. Rather than gather the usual anonymous statistics on the people lined up for emergency food, she decided to listen to them instead. In "The Faces Behind the Statistics," one of two reports released in September by the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, she profiles four people on the hunger line:

Maria is 45, has four children, and suffers from depression. Magrit, 59, lost her job of 17 years when she had to take time off to heal a broken ankle. Jack, 57, used to paint houses, but had to stop because of physical problems, and is now disabled. Sianne, 41, takes care of a family of nine.

"I didnÂąt know why all these people were standing in line," said Goldstein, a recent graduate from a MasterÂąs program at Hunter College School of Social Work, "and I wanted to know."

A staggering 37 percent of East Harlem residents live below the federal poverty guidelines. Some 600 of them go to the Yorkville Common Pantry for food every week. The majority of those seeking help are the working poor, some of them thrust into hunger (and, often, homelessness) by a sudden disaster.

"Hunger is not about individual failings,” Goldstein said. “It’s about a failed system."

In addition to the four individual stories in GoldsteinÂąs report, several initiatives are proposed:

  • establishing Client Advisory Boards at emergency food programs so that clients have more input into their operation
  • using food pantries as entry points for client services like job training, case management, and health insurance
  • seeking greater client participation in the food stamp program

The Mayor’s Vetoes Of Food Stamp Bills

Copies of the report have gone out to government officials, funders, activists, and the media, but the reader Goldstein most hopes to capture is Michael Bloomberg. "IÂąd love for the mayor to read it or, even more so, to have the mayor stand on line to get food stamps," said Goldstein.

Mayor Bloomberg vetoed three City Council bills this past summer that would have provided additional access to food stamps for low-income families. Despite repeated requests, we were unable to get a response from the mayorÂąs office about why he vetoed the bills. According to a New York Daily News story that appeared shortly after the decision, Bloomberg said the bills would have violated state and federal law. This claim was disputed by the New York City Coalition Against Hunger.

The vetoes were particularly unsettling to many advocates for the poor because food stamps are considered a long-term solution to hunger rather than having people line up for food at a pantry or soup kitchen.

"One of the bills," Goldstein explained, "would require representatives from the Human Resources Administration to go to the pantry lines and help people sign up for food stamps; the second would waive face-to-face interviews for people working 40 hours or more a week (and for people who are disabled or facing other hardships); the third bill would allow online (and fax) applications for food stamps."

Democratic mayoral candidate Fernando Ferrer has used the mayor's vetoes in his campaign, bringing it up, and other food stamp related issues, at a campaign stop in East Harlem recently.

The City Council overrode the mayorÂąs veto on all three bills. The question now is, will the mayor allow the laws to be implemented or mount a court challenge?

Obesity In East Harlem Compared To The Upper East Side

There is another face now visible among those living in poverty: obesity.

Contrary to popular belief, obesity is not a sign of affluence, but rather an indicator of poverty, as the study, "Hunger and Obesity in East Harlem" by J.C. Dwyer makes clear. The other report released by the New York City Coalition Against Hunger in September, Dwyer compares conditions between East Harlem and the Upper East Side, two neighborhoods divided by 96th Street that provide a stark contrast, representing the highest and lowest figures in poverty and obesity.

In East Harlem, 38 percent of children are born into poverty; on the Upper East Side, just five percent. East Harlem has the highest incidence of obesity and diabetes in the City; the Upper East Side has the lowest.

Dwyer outlines the link between obesity and hunger clearly and simply: it is about choice and control. People who have more choices and more control over what they consume have lower obesity and poverty rates and healthier eating.

The Upper East Side has more supermarkets which afford residents more nutritious choices. East Harlem has more bodegas, fast food restaurants, and emergency food programs.

Emergency food programs themselves can be part of the problem, dependent as they often are on donations from food banks. Many food banks receive corporate products that failed their target marketing and are not selling--a new line of crackers perhaps. They may be plentiful, but not necessarily nutritious.

Dwyer makes the point that even the large funders contribute to the problem, concerned as they are with short term solutions like funding food pantries, but doing little to ensure that nutritious foods are offered in these programs. "Funders are still stuck in the emergency food mentality," said Dwyer. "But a lot of people arenÂąt relying on the pantries and soup kitchens for emergency food only. This is about long-term hunger."

And the cash strapped food pantries, some existing on a budget as low as $17,400 a year, cannot afford to purchase more expensive nutritious items like produce. Bodega owners, too, are often caught in the market forces that make it impossible for them to offer affordable fresh produce.

Solutions, Including A Need To Change The Culture Of Charity

The solutions are far from simple and they have to emanate from the top down, says Dwyer. "Otherwise, the bodega owner, the working mother, the soup kitchen manager wonÂąt be able to make these kinds of decisions. We need subsidies, tax rebates, and for the culture of charity to change."

The culture of charity, explained Dwyer, encourages us to donate a turkey or a few cans of food at Thanksgiving or to volunteer for a few hours at a soup kitchen, but falls short of demanding structural and systemic changes, and assistance from government.

Dwyer advocates for a New York City Food Policy Council, with an office under the mayor. "We need an overarching policy," he explained. "Mayor Bloomberg recently created a council to address the flight of manufacturing businesses from the city. They looked at the problem from the business side and the manufacturing side. We need a similar model for food, a food czar.” This is a growing trend in city planning circles, according to Dwyer, with sterling results in places like Toronto and Connecticut.

Dwyer also stressed the importance that government action never take the form of a sin tax or punishment for unhealthy eating. "These people just donÂąt have the money to spare. Incentives work better," he said.

Dwyer illustrated the dilemma poor people often face when making decisions about food. "If you were offering low-income people the choice between an apple or a sleeve of cookies, most will buy the sleeve of cookies. Why? It lasts longer, it will fill you up more, it makes the kids stop crying, and it is more readily available. In the long term, it will make you fat and it isnÂąt nutritious, but that wonÂąt be enough to change short-term behavior. People are more concerned in the short term with survival, not long-term health."

One solution to hunger and poverty, and the obesity that results from it, is jobs that pay enough for people to feed themselves and their families. But obesity can cause ambulatory problems, making it difficult to work. In addition to having the cityÂąs highest rate of obesity and diabetes, East Harlem also tops the list for diabetes-related amputations.

"I wanted to take down the myth that obesity is a product of natural prosperity," said Dwyer. "ThereÂąs a logical flaw in that argument. If obesity were a sign of prosperity, it would be the rich who are fat and not the poor.”



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