Every day, the lines form - more men than women waiting for a soup kitchen, more women than men outside food pantries.
The federal government sponsors half a dozen nutrition programs meant to prevent Americans from going hungry, including senior lunch subsidies, meals for schoolchildren, and food stamps. But emergency food programs report rising demand for their assistance every year.
Since 1995, the number of people receiving food stamps in New York City has sharply declined, and the use of food pantries and soup kitchens has nearly doubled. Opponents of welfare reform believe these changes are connected. They also attribute the growing need for food assistance to the economy: when times were good, the poor gained little; now that times are bad, they are the first to feel the pinch.
BEING ELIGIBLE FOR FOOD STAMPS IS NOT ENOUGH
Food stamps have never been used by everyone who is eligible, partly because of the widespread belief they are only for welfare recipients. Many low-paid workers do not know they might qualify for food stamps. Others are too proud to apply for benefits, or intimidated by the application process.
The recent drop in the food stamp rolls can be traced to two laws passed in 1996. One barred most immigrants from receiving food stamps; the other mandated welfare reform. The Food Stamp Reauthorization Act of 2002 restored eligibility to most immigrants, but those who lost benefits under the 1996 law may not know they can re-apply under the new rules. When immigrants do apply for benefits, they encounter the city's failure to comply with a court order to translate written information into all needed languages, and to provide each client with a caseworker who speaks their language.
Make the Road by Walking, a Brooklyn-based social justice organization, joined the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund and the New York Legal Assistance Group to sue the Giuliani administration for violating the right of non-English speakers to services in their own language. After losing in court, the Human Resource Administration mailed 500,000 notices, in 17 languages, announcing the right to free translation and interpretation services. The agency also translated paperwork into nine languages, and agreed to assign bilingual caseworkers to clients with limited English skills.
However, the city is still a long way from fulfilling the mandates upheld by the court decision. Make the Road by Walking monitors the city's compliance by reviewing its quarterly reports, and by sending members and staff to inspect application sites.
"Even if a form is translated, it often sits in a folder on peoples' desks," reports Andrew Friedman, executive director of Make the Road by Walking. Computer-generated documents are not yet translated, so some clients are sent notices they cannot read. "The consequences are obscene," says Friedman. If a client misses an appointment or brings the wrong documents to an interview, her benefits can be lost."
The Human Resource Administration currently matches clients with caseworkers speaking their language in 40 percent of cases. Several years ago, it was just five percent. Friedman attributes the success of individual centers to their managers, while the system as a whole is "perfectly content to have people unable to access their services."
The second cause of declining food stamp use in New York City, "welfare to work," is related to the city's incorrect administration of state and federal regulations. Recipients are entitled to get food stamps even if they are sanctioned for failing to meet strict work requirements. Those who find paying jobs can keep food stamps until their salaries rise above the eligibility limit, which was $1,180 a month for a family of three in 2001. However, for years local welfare workers did not tell recipients who were losing cash benefits that food stamps were still available to them. The city automatically cut off food stamps whenever a person's cash benefits were stopped.
Food stamp assistance did not decline equally in all ethnic groups. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York reported that between 1995 and 1998, Latinos were the hardest hit. Eight out of every hundred Latino households in the city stopped receiving food stamps between 1995 and 1998. African-American households saw a smaller change: less than two percent lost food stamps during that time. In contrast, nearly 1% of all White and Asian households were newly eligible for food stamps between 1995 and 1998.
Last August, Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum issued a report comparing New York City with 14 other cities in the state and nation. New York was the only one where food stamp rolls continued to drop even while the unemployment rate rose. The state's Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance has accepted recommendations made in the report, although most have not yet been carried out.
"Change takes time," says Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, "but there are fewer problems than there used to be." A shortened application form is in the works, as are an extra two months of food stamps for newly employed recipients. According to Berg, the city is lagging behind the rest of the state in this extension of benefits.
THE PERSISTENT GROCERY GAP
When the city cuts off their food assistance, clients often find out only at the supermarket checkout counter, when their electronic benefits card doesn't work. Facing a stretch of days without meals, they turn to emergency food programs run by private nonprofit organizations. Nearly a thousand people searching for emergency food called the Food for Survival hotline in the six months up to November 2002.
Even if everyone who is entitled to them were getting food stamps, many would still use up their allotment too soon. Food programs see rising demand as each month nears its end; some clients count on them to supplement food stamps year-round.
There are over 1,000 emergency food programs in the city, according to Food for Survival, whose Food Bank is the major local distributor of emergency food. Over 700 food pantries are members, plus 300 soup kitchens, and over a hundred shelters and other service providers. This patchwork feeds about half a million people each week, and a total of 1.5 million people over the course of a year. The Food Bank distributed 61.5 million pounds of food last year, an increase of more than 10 million pounds over the previous year.
WHO USES EMERGENCY FOOD PROGRAMS?
According to a survey of its member programs released by Food for Survival in October 2001, one in four clients reported having recently chosen between buying food and paying their rent or mortgage. About the same number were receiving food stamps, although many more may have been eligible. Slightly fewer lived in a household with at least one working adult member. Very few clients were homeless or on public assistance.
For the majority, their main source of income was Social Security (including disability as well as old age payments), workers' compensation, or a pension. This suggests that more than half were elderly and/or had disabilities. Adults in one in six client households said that in the past year, they had to skip meals nearly every month, or eat smaller portions, because they could not afford enough food.
FILLING THE FOOD BANK
Federal, state, and local governments provide a large part of the Food Bank's supplies; budget deficits threaten this assistance. The city's Emergency Food Assistance Program, the main source of food for over 200 programs, was on the list of contingency budget cuts announced by the Bloomberg administration last spring and is likely to be on the list this year.
The Food Bank also relies on individual donors, corporations, and foundations, who mostly give cash. Nonprofit organizations collect food and funds, and City Harvest brings leftovers from restaurants, caterers, and others. Since the start of 2002, these private donations have fallen sharply.
THE MISSING BILLION DOLLARS
The New York City Coalition Against Hunger estimates that at least 800,000 New Yorkers who are eligible for food stamps are not receiving them. Those who do get assistance receive an average of $104 a month, allowing about a dollar per meal. Not only is this skimpy for individual recipients; it also represents a huge loss to the city's economy. If all eligible New Yorkers were getting food stamps, there would be close to a billion extra dollars, all of them federal, pouring into neighborhood grocery stores and bodegas each year. Economists know there would be a "multiplier effect": for every new dollar spent in New York City, several more are generated as jobs are created, profits are made, and workers and business owners spend the extra dollars.
That doesn't happen when food stamps are replaced by charity. Nearly all of the staff of food pantries and soup kitchens are volunteers. Their work is vital to the people they feed, but they don't earn any new dollars. The programs spend less on food than their customers would if they had money, for two reasons. Their purchases are supplemented by donated goods, and they buy too little to give out the amount of food their clients would buy if they had food stamps.
DEMAND OUTSTRIPS SUPPLY
Many feeding programs now have to turn away clients, reduce their hours, or dole out smaller portions. Meanwhile, nonprofits that never used to feed clients are finding that giving out groceries is faster than getting emergency food stamps from the city. For the United Way report, IN JEOPARDY: THE IMPACT OF WELFARE REFORM ON NONPROFIT HUMAN SERVICE AGENCIES IN NEW YORK CITY, researcher Mimi Abramovitz interviewed a nonprofit executive who told her, "We don't want to be a food pantry. Nonetheless, if someone is literally desperate, we do have emergency food on hand and the requests for it have increased dramatically."
Make the Road by Walking opened a food pantry three years ago to feed members in crisis situations. In contradiction to official policy, "HRA is still telling people they can't get food stamps when they are on SSI or disability payments," says Friedman. Such errors can take weeks to correct. The agency's members may also encounter delays at food pantries, some of which require documents to determine eligibility. "We know our people, so we don't have to screen them," Friedman explains, adding that, "The pantry is empty more often now; it's more heavily used."
Emergency feeding programs are no longer just for emergencies. When they cannot authorize food stamps for clients, the city's own eligibility workers send them to pantries and soup kitchens. Unfortunately, feeding programs are themselves starved for resources, relying on uncertain flows of supplies, donations and volunteers. As charity is stretched thinner, the weak points in the government's nutritional safety net grow more obvious. Too little help is going to too few people.
Where to find a food pantry or soup kitchen: call the Emergency Food Locator (866-692-3663), or the City Harvest Hunger Hotline (866-888-8777).
How to influence public policy on hunger, visit the New York City Coalition Against Hunger web site
Volunteering at a soup kitchen: call New York Cares (212-228-5000), or visit their web site. Remember that most soup kitchens have extra volunteers at Thanksgiving and Christmas, so your help may be even more welcome during the rest of the year.
Making donations: In November 2002, the NYC Bank-to-Bank Partnership is collecting food at over 100 bank branches. To find the nearest location, see the Food For Survival web site. At other times, call 718-991-4300 to donate or start a food drive.
Food stamp statistics from the city's Human Resource Administration: HRA Facts.
Linda Ostreicher, a former budget analyst for the New York City Council, is a freelance writer and consultant to nonprofits. She is currently on the staff of Bronx Independent Living Services.