Gotham Gazette

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The food pantry opens early in the morning at the church, because they don't want a line to form.

"Would you want to stand outside an emergency food program in your own neighborhood?" asks Doreen Wohl. "Out on the street for everyone to see you lining up for food? No, it's an indignity."

As executive director of the West Side Campaign Against Hunger, which is in the basement of the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew on West 86th Street, Wohl attempts to eliminate the indignities. That's why the pantry is set up like a grocery store. The people coming in are not given prepared bags of food but rather shopping carts and cards with points, based on family size. They walk through the place and choose the protein, vegetables, grains, fruits and dairy products they prefer.

People from 88 households picked out food on this particular morning, and another 88 showed up in the afternoon before the doors closed at 3 p.m. "It was a very busy day," said Wohl, who has seen the number of people coming to her pantry rise from 16,652 in 1993 to 47,000 this year.

"Hunger is rising," said Kim Gilliland of the Hunger Action Network of New York State. "More people are turning to emergency food programs, but the food is thinning and portions are being reduced. People are being turned away by the hundreds daily." Over 74,000 people were not able to get food at the 1300 pantries and soup kitchens in the city in just one month last year, 59 percent of them children.

According to "Hunger is No Accident", a recently released report produced by the New York City Welfare Reform and Human Rights Documentation Project, the current demand for emergency food can be traced to practices that amount to human rights violations in relation to the Food Stamp Program by the city, state and federal government.

The city violations, the report charges, include restricted access to the program and wrongful denial of benefits. The city discriminates against people with limited English, the hearing impaired, teenagers, and women who attempt to apply without their husbands. Applicants are also subjected to degrading treatment meant to discourage participation. State violations include insufficient monitoring of the city's practices. Also, since the state began cutting the welfare rolls, it has used the money it has saved for tax cuts rather than to alleviate hunger and other problems of the former welfare recipients. The federal government, which inaugurated the food stamp program in 1964 to help "low-income households alleviate hunger and malnutrition," is faulted for providing meager benefits and insufficient outreach.


Nineteen percent of all children in New York City went to bed hungry last year as demands for emergency food continued to rise. Statewide, close to two million people live below the poverty level, according to Food for Survival.

While many of these households are eligible to receive food stamps, they often do not, for a variety of reasons outlined in the report. Many simply do not know they are eligible for food stamps. The participation rate among eligible individuals is only 52 percent in New York City

But the authorities often actively discourage those eligible from applying, the report charges, or fail to inform potential applicants. Eligible families who were rejected for welfare benefits, for example, were not told they could apply for food stamps separately at a "food stamp-only" office.


"Hunger is no Accident" is packed with facts and figures about hunger in our city and the system that frequently prolongs it. Over 200 public assistance applicants were surveyed about their experiences. The report, written by Cybelle Fox, a policy analyst at the Urban Justice Center - Human Rights Project, is the first effort of the Welfare Reform and Human Rights Documentation Project, a coalition group of six anti-poverty organizations.

The report details how many practices violate not only U.S. law, but also various international codes including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Code of Conduct on the Human Right to Adequate Food, and the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.


At the pantry run by West Side Campaign Against Hunger, over twelve percent of the people coming for emergency food are working, but their earnings, low-paying or part-time, are insufficient. Ironically, many of them toil in the food industry: dishwashers, grocery clerks, cashiers, people working on trucks or in bodegas. Other professions include home health aides, beauty parlors assistants and unskilled laborers in construction. The pantry will soon be staying open on Monday nights until 6:30 to be able to serve more of the working poor.

Forty-eight percent of those receiving food at the West side pantry are presently getting food stamps, but it is still not enough to feed themselves or their families. In New York City, participants in the Food Stamp Program receive 88 cents per meal per person, less than half the average meal cost of $1.76. "Probably everyone who comes to the pantry is eligible for food stamps or should be" said Doreen Wohl. "But fifty-two percent are not getting them."

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