Gotham Gazette Wed, 03 Mar 2021 08:17:17 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Democratic Mayoral Candidates Offer Ideas for Addressing Food Insecurity may bdb vis

Free food giveaways (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

Nine candidates vying for the Democratic nomination to become the next mayor of New York City gathered Tuesday morning in a virtual forum to discuss their visions for the city's food policy and serving the roughly 2 million New Yorkers who are food insecure.

At the "Town Hall on the Future of Food in New York City" -- hosted by Hunter College in partnership with City Harvest, CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute, Food Bank for NYC, Hunger Free America, and other organizations, and moderated by NY1 anchor Errol Louis -- the candidates discussed the city's urgent need to manage rampant hunger during the pandemic and center it in the recovery effort. But the discussion also focused on the pre-existing problems of food insecurity, inequitable access to nutritious meals, and inefficiencies and lack of sustainability in the city's food use.

The participants, who were selected based on their polling and fundraising standings among a field of dozens of candidates, included Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, former federal housing secretary Shaun Donovan, former city sanitation commissioner and "covid food czar" Kathryn Garcia, former Citigroup executive Ray McGuire, former nonprofit executive Dianne Morales, former city veterans' services commissioner Loree Sutton, city Comptroller Scott Stringer, small business owner Joycelyn Taylor, and Maya Wiley, a civil rights attorney and former counsel to Mayor Bill de Blasio. Louis pushed them to focus on how they would bring anti-hunger initiatives to scale to address the food crisis compounded by the pandemic.

Programs to help feed New Yorkers have often missed the mark, failing to meet adequate health standards and leaving many New Yorkers out entirely. A 2017 study from the Robin Hood Poverty Tracker found 1 in 4 eligible food stamp, or SNAP, recipients -- 700,000 New York City residents -- were not enrolled in the program, less than the statewide participation rate of 93 percent the same year, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

In September, the Poverty Tracker reporter 1.7 million New Yorkers were getting food stamps, over 200,000 more than last February. During roughly the same period the percentage of food stamp recipients who also used a food pantry doubled, from 27 percent of enrollees to 60 percent.

Nearly all candidates agreed on the need to increase SNAP benefits and improve enrollment in the program; expand community gardens and urban agriculture; and improve access to nutritious food throughout communities and in institutional settings like schools and food pantries. There was also broad consensus around creating a more unified food procurement and distribution system in New York City by strengthening the Mayor's Office of Food Policy. Multiple candidates highlighted the frequent lack of coordination among the myriad city agencies that provide food as part of their services.

"One of the reasons why I needed to step in is that the Mayor's Office of Food Policy is incredibly understaffed," said Garcia, who managed the city's emergency food response last summer before leaving the de Blasio administration last fall and launching her campaign to succeed him.

"[Food Policy Director] Kate McKenzie does an amazing job but she doesn't have procurement authority, she doesn't have logistical of the clear things is how we approach food is very siloed, very fragmented," Garcia said, noting the separate food procurement activities of the Department of Education, Department of Correction, and senior centers. Garcia says the city provided 1 million meals a day and shored up food pantries last summer under her leadership. (Shortly after the forum, Garcia released a multi-pronged platform to fight food insecurity with an emphasis on enrolling more New Yorkers in SNAP and expanding what the benefits would cover.) 

Adams, who repeatedly discussed the need for nutritious food, criticized the nutritional value of many of the government-provided or -supported food services, including Garcia’s covid effort, and said increasing the size of the Mayor's Office of Food Policy would have a limited impact if the city did not also incorporate the new perspectives from food-access "visionaries."

"They don't share the values," Adams said of the city's food-oriented bureaucrats, historically. "I am amazed at the roadblocks, that organizations like Rockaway Youth Task Force are not able to scale," he said during a segment of the conversation on urban agriculture programs. 

Some of the candidates saw the city's food dilemmas rooted in job scarcity and low wages and frequently discussed the importance of building food policy into the city's economic recovery.

"We solve none of this if we don't recognize that fundamentally what is broken and why 30% of our people were not eating through the month before covid is because the rent was too damn high and people were choosing to pay rent instead of buying groceries," Wiley said, adding, "at the end of the day it is about the city's ability to generate new jobs." Wiley has announced a plan as mayor to create 100,000 jobs through a $10 billion capital investment and cited it as an example of how she would leverage existing city resources to bring her approach to scale.

"Fundamentally, food insecurity is about income and it is about the fact that we do not intentionally ensure that our young people have pathways to careers and are prepared for the careers of the 21st Century," said Garcia.

The conversation of workforce development dovetailed with another on building an urban agrarian economy in New York to create good jobs and ensure both sustainable and equitable food access for city residents.

"We need to also think about aligning not just food policy, but the resilience office that exists right now to work more in tandem with each other because we know that food justice is also climate justice," said Morales, who was the executive director of Phipps Neighborhoods in the South Bronx, a social services provider. As mayor, Morales said she would invest $25 million to food innovation and sustainability programs in communities of color.

Multiple candidates, including Stringer, Donovan, and Adams wanted to see a greater emphasis on local and regional food procurement. "If I'm mayor, I really want to create a Mayor's Office of Food Markets because we've got to link farming with communities and for a farm-to-table policy that brings the purchasing power of this city regionally, upstate, downstate, and create those relationships," Stringer said. "Farmers markets should be everywhere."

"There is huge potential to grow, so to speak, the power of locally-grown produce," said Donovan, who was the city’s housing commissioner under Mayor Bloomberg before spending all eight years in the Obama presidential cabinet. "We need innovative approaches to ensure we are using every inch of available space that we can." Like other candidates, he expressed support for ideas like more community gardens and vertical agriculture. Donovan also repeatedly stressed the need to support struggling restaurants and incorporate them into the city's food programs as well as its economic recovery.

While supportive of partnerships with upstate and Long Island counties, Garcia took issue with the notion that New York could achieve a sustainable food market locally. "If we want fresh, healthy food day in and day out, we're not harvesting today in this region, we are going to have to bring it in," she said following Donovan's comments. "We need to make sure the systems go beyond just this region so that we can still be getting lettuce even though it's February."

"That should not hold us back from starting to have a robust agrarian economy in New York City," Adams countered, echoing Donovan's statements about the importance of life sciences in city schools and connecting lessons about food production to healthy eating.

When asked directly whether they would use the city's power of eminent domain to force the sale of private land for the city to use, most candidates raised their hands affirmatively. Adams expressed his dissent, noting that the many existing city resources that he said are being wasted or under-utilized should be tapped before forcing land sales. (Others also raised the importance of better using available land, with Stringer naming a report he issued as comptroller on the number of vacant city-owned lots that could be used to develop housing and noting that many lots could also be used for community gardens.)

McGuire, who recently stepped down from one of the biggest jobs on Wall Street to run for mayor, also criticized the mismanagement of city resources and cautioned on the costs to the city that eminent domain could pose. "It gets expensive so you have to figure out when you exercise eminent domain at market rates who is going to pay for it," he said.

Equity was an overriding theme in a number of areas of the food policy discussion, from eradicating food deserts to ensuring healthy options in schools and pantries.

"I think we do have a moral obligation to ensure that every resident of the city has those basic needs of food and housing," said Taylor, who created the nonprofit NYC WMBE Alliance, according to her website. "We have to make sure that when we look at the budget we look things that are 'nice to have' and things that are 'needs to have,' and if it means that we have to reallocate funds from the things that are nice to have to the needs, then that's what I would do."

"We need to stop leaving communities out of the co-creation process," said Morales, who stressed participation of food advocacy groups.

Wiley and Taylor also discussed the need for community participation in the form of locally-based food councils to inform nutrition, per Wiley, and more active mayoral outposts in each borough, per Taylor. Both also discussed the importance of collecting more targeted data to better determine the outcomes of food programs. Other candidates outlined plans or past work to incorporate cultural sensitivity into food access, including then-Manhattan Borough President Stringer's 2008 "Go Green East Harlem Cookbook" and Garcia's discussion of halal and kosher options in meal services, something others mentioned as well.

The candidates agreed that compounded structural problems of food deserts and the reliance of low-income communities on the city's various food programs exacerbate malnutrition and health outcomes, but not all offered the same solution.

"Today food deserts are such that many of our people don't have access to healthy food. They have access to those institutions that provide food that is pretty low on the nutrition scale," McGuire said. He laid out a more corporate-friendly view of the path forward, that involved rezoning to allow big supermarket chains, hiring gig workers to deliver meals to seniors, and bringing refrigeration resources to bodegas in order to better store fresh produce.

As is often the case, Morales was at the other end of the spectrum, saying she supports community land trusts to create both better access to fresh produce and greater "food sovereignty" in poor communities. Sutton said the solution was to leverage public-private partnerships.

"It's one thing to talk about all these ideas, but in the same breath to disdain, disparage and disrespect the top 1 percent of New Yorkers who bring in nearly 40 percent of our tax base or reject and shun real estate as one example, as a number of my fellow candidate have during this campaign," said Sutton, a former Army psychiatrist who led de Blasio's Department of Veterans' Services. "We are absolutely shutting down those pathways to partnership and prosperity."

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Democratic Mayoral Candidates Offer Ideas for Addressing Food Insecurity Wed, 10 Feb 2021 05:00:00 +0000
City Sees Crush of Public Assistance Applications as Coronavirus Recession Takes Hold New Yorkers seek assistance

New Yorkers wait on line for food (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

As New York City shut down amid the coronavirus outbreak, and hundreds of thousands of people lost their jobs and livelihoods, the city saw a massive increase in applications for food stamps and cash assistance.

According to new data from the city’s Human Resources Administration and Department of Social Services, applications for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), more commonly referred to as food stamps, and for cash assistance have surged since the state’s stay-at-home order went into effect in March.

In March, 59,179 individuals applied for SNAP benefits, which are available to low-income New Yorkers, compared with 24,271 in March last year. The month of April saw an even larger jump, with 84,171 applications for SNAP, a 207% increase compared to 27,416 in April last year. In total from February through April this year, 170,446 people have applied for SNAP, a stark contrast with the 73,533 who applied in the same period last year.

Applications for cash assistance -- which is available to those who are eligible “based on income and resources, household composition, and other factors,” according to the HRA website -- have also jumped, albeit not as high. There were 34,213 applications in April, compared to 25,677 in April last year; 37,734 people applied for cash assistance in March this year, compared to 24,136 last year. From February through April, 94,634 New Yorkers have sought cash assistance, compared to 72,077 in the same time last year. According to HRA, applications have since leveled off and returned to pre-pandemic levels in the last week of April.

Along with the immense volume of applications, the city’s social service agencies have had to quickly adapt to the conditions imposed by the pandemic. HRA already had a system in place to allow individuals to apply for SNAP online and on the phone. But cash assistance applications required in-person visits to an HRA office, which became infeasible after the city went into lockdown. The city then requested and received a waiver from the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, which was granted in late March. Online applications for cash assistance increased from 8% in the first week of March to 93% in the week ending March 28. They have since decreased. 

"In response to this unprecedented crisis, we’ve taken unprecedented steps at DSS-HRA to increase access to vital benefits and resources for New Yorkers in need––and we continue our top-to-bottom review of our policies and procedures to see how we can keep adapting and go further," said HRA-DSS spokesperson Isaac McGinn, in a statement. "In the past several weeks, we’ve implemented sweeping reforms at a scale and speed never before seen to ensure the 3-million-plus New Yorkers who count us to make ends meet remain connected to essential benefits and don’t have to worry about losing services, which is more important than ever."

At Mayor Bill de Blasio’s daily coronavirus briefing on Thursday, HRA-DSS Commissioner Steven Banks told reporters his agency has faced applications at “unprecedented levels that nobody could have predicted.”

“In order to address that, we have reassigned 1,300 members of our staff to address this on precedent demand, and we're working through those applications,” he said.

According to new data released Thursday by the U.S. Department of Labor and New York State Department of Labor, the seasonally-adjusted unemployment rate in New York City jumped from 4.1% in March to 14.2% in April. The increase was “the largest on record...since current record keeping began in 1976.” The data shows that New York City was down 891,800 jobs from April 2019 to April 2020.

As of May 16, more than 2.27 million New Yorkers (from New York City and beyond) had applied for unemployment insurance through the state government, according to Department of Labor data. The state has paid out more than $10 billion in benefits, according to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office, up from $2.1 billion paid out all of last year.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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City Sees Crush of Public Assistance Applications as Coronavirus Recession Takes Hold Thu, 21 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
'No New Yorker Goes Hungry': De Blasio Announces Next Steps to Combat Food Emergency hunger food pantry

De Blasio visits a food pantry in Brooklyn (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

As the coronavirus crisis was unfolding in New York City last month, Mayor Bill de Blasio named his sanitation commissioner, Kathryn Garcia, as the new “food czar” to lead the implementation of a massive effort to ensure New Yorkers don’t go hungry. With the city already home to over a million “food insecure” people, the scale of the need accelerated quickly as hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers lost their jobs, school buildings closed, and food pantries struggled to stay open.

The city announced over 400 sites where families with children could pick up food each weekday, then expanded that offering to adults without children, allocated millions of dollars in emergency food bank funding, began coordinating delivery of meals to seniors, and took other initial steps.

According to experts on hunger and food insecurity, one of the major challenges New York City faces amid the current crisis is identifying the population that needs assistance because of the rapidly evolving situation in the city. The city appears to be taking sweeping measures to try to ensure everyone who needs food gets it.

On Tuesday, de Blasio visited the Campaign Against Hunger food pantry in Bedford-Stuyvesant to thank workers there and highlight the importance of emergency food, then dedicated the bulk of his Wednesday coronavirus briefing to the city’s new anti-hunger plans.

“Today I am announcing a $170 million initative to make sure every New Yorker gets what they need and no New Yorker goes hungry,” de Blasio said from City Hall on Wednesday morning, announcing that over the last month the city had provided over 4.5 million free meals. “Thank god we have a strong foundation to build on. All those food pantries and soup kitchens, all the amazing organizations out there that have been doing work all over the city for years and years.”

Called Feeding New York, the plan includes four main planks: First, scaling up and adjusting existing food delivery systems through the Department of Education and Department for the Aging, working with the Office of Emergency Management and under Garcia’s leadership, along with other partners. Second, hiring drivers licensed by the Taxi and Limousine Commission to deliver meals, yielding 11,000 individuals already to both bring needy people meals and provide earnings to drivers who are hurting.

Third, securing the supply by using $50 million to invest in a food reserve that will hold 18 million meals in case of a disruption in the food supply chain. And fourth, protect grocery store workers by telling stores they should “require customers to wear face mask coverings to protect employees and customers” and ask any non-compliant customers to leave. The city is also coordinating with vendors to ensure non-medical personal protective equipment can be accessed by grocery stores, and that the stores can directly place orders for equipment.

“Now, I was in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, but this challenge is literally in every neighborhood, because if you have no money, how do you get food?,” de Blasio said on Wednesday. “And we know that the massive unemployment that we're experiencing is literally every zip code, every part of the city. So, whoever you are, wherever you are, if you need food, we're here for you, and there should be no shame. I want to emphasize this. It’s no one's fault that we're dealing with this horrible crisis. Anyone needs food - we're here for you. You don't have to think twice. Of course, it's for free. Just pick up the phone or go online. And if you need information, you can go to You can call 311. You can find all the places, all the ways we'll get you food. Please do not hesitate and spread the word to everyone you know.”

The mayor estimated that the city will have served about 10 million free meals in the month when April ends, and that May could rise to 15 million meals.

De Blasio’s announcement also comes on the heels of dire warnings from food banks in New York City and across the nation, and announcements from both the state and city governments of $25 million each to help food banks acquire food and pay personnel as the largerly volunteer-run nonprofits struggle to staff their operations. In her role as food czar Garcia is also working with those nonprofits, as well as entities at all levels of government, private companies, and various city agencies.

“The real focus is on both the supply side and also on operations to make sure we are getting food to our most vulnerable,” Garcia said on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show last week. “Some who were vulnerable before and some who have become vulnerable because of the epidemic.” The city is striving to make sure the pandemic “doesn't become a tragedy about hunger,” she said.

"Despite this crisis, we will not let any New Yorker go hungry, " de Blasio said last week after visiting a school meal hub at P.S. 1 in Manhattan. "With more New Yorkers asking where their next meal will come from, our 435 Meal Hubs are here to serve them. And none of this would be possible without the hard work of the meal service workers on the front lines. We cannot thank them enough for their service.”

While this is not the first time that New Yorkers have experienced times of crisis leading to food insecurities across the city, it may be the worst or among the worst in modern times given the massive job loss and lag in income so many are facing, even as the federal government has passed a stimulus to send people checks and the state is working through a backlog of unemployment insurance claims. There’s a tremendous amount for Garcia and others to figure out, though the city’s approach appears to be to cast as wide a net as possible and not require anyone to justify a need for food.

“Our biggest challenge, which is very different from what we saw, for example, in [Hurricane] Sandy, is that we don't have a population that's already identified that needs assistance, right? The population keeps growing,” said Grace Bonilla, administrator of the city’s Human Resources Administration (HRA), during an online panel discussion convened at the end of March by The Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center. “The rate of growth from neighborhood to neighborhood is different. And I'm speaking for an agency that has to operationalize food, making sure that we're meeting the needs of so many people as they're losing their jobs. Then that also is a moving target.”

Kate MacKenzie, the director for the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy, agreed, explaining that delivering services to New Yorkers becomes hard when you have to continuously reevaluate the same problems when populations grow or change.

“The fluid state of everything, right? Of the number of people that we need to feed, of the trucks on the road. Everything changes by the hour. So trying to solve for something that the next day needs to be solved for again,” MacKenzie said.

With school buildings closed to teachers and students, and many children relying on schools for multiple meals a day, it was a natural move for the city to turn schools into the 435 meal hubs across the five boroughs, which are open on weekdays. A spokesperson for the mayor said that individuals and families can collect enough food for the weekends on Fridays.

As city government takes a more active approach to managing the exacerbated hunger crisis -- a crisis that was immense even before coronavirus decimated the local economy -- the city’s food pantries, soup kitchens, and other such places where food insecure people can get food have also kicked into another gear, but they are struggling to stay open and secure and provide enough food.

There has been huge demand on the food pantry system with this coronavirus pandemic. According to a City Council press release from the end of March, 32% of food pantries and soup kitchens had quickly shut down, with more expected to follow, thus leading to the push for the $25 million in emergency aid that was announced soon after.

Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America, said on the Max & Murphy podcast that “they are having trouble operating. It is important to note how ill-equipped they were to deal with the hunger problem even when times were good. As wonderful as these agencies are -- they’re run by the best people I’ve ever met in my life, most of them are volunteers -- even in good times, less than one-tenth of the dollar amount of food that the federal nutrition assistance programs provide, and if you include all the federal programs, probably less than one-twentieth of the food that SNAP, what used to be called the food stamp program, the school meals, or the women, infants, and children’s program provides.”

Meanwhile, the recent federal stimulus package will provide New York with $38 million for Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) Commodities, nearly $16 million for TEFAP Administration, and a little under $35 million for The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), according to Derek Thomas of FPWA.

Before the emergency city and state funding was announced, the City Council called for the $50 million, $25 million from the state and $25 million from the city, to help food pantry and food assistance programs remain open through the crisis.

“According to Met Council, the combined $50 million will provide funding for over 19 million meals, which will allow for 2.1 million balanced and healthy food packages each consisting of nine meals per USDA guidelines,” a press release said, also noting that more money would be needed after the $50 million.

The money was approved soon after. De Blasio was then asked about it at an April 11 briefing, and said that while it will help, he believes the food situation will get worse before it gets better, and that improving access to food for New Yorkers will be increasingly important.

“I'm not confident yet that everything that is going to be needed is in place. That's why I named a food czar, Kathryn Garcia, and that's why I've said to her, whatever it's going to take, we're going to put forward the resources to make sure that everyone has food. We literally have to have a simple standard,” de Blasio said. “No New Yorker goes without food and what the folks in the Department Education are doing, which is amazing, 435 sites that have now been up over the last week or more where anybody, any adult can come in and get breakfast, lunch and dinner, grab and go as for as many family members as possible. That to me is the kind of thing we're going to have to do on a really big scale going forward to make sure that everyone has food.”

That line of thinking led to Wednesday’s announcement of the additional efforts in the new Feeding New York plan.

On WNYC, Garcia stressed the challenges with the volunteer base at typical nonprofit emergency food providers, in response to a caller question. “We think it’s absolutely critical to support this particular network,” she said. “This is where we are seeing the most challenges with being able to staff things, with many people being ill or sheltering.” Seniors often volunteer at soup kitchens and food pantries, and also happen to be the most vulnerable population to the novel coronavirus.

“We do have standardized guidance for people, our volunteers, who are wanting to do some home deliveries, who are working in kitchens or pantries or any volunteer capacity for that matter,” MacKenzie said during the Hunter discussion. “Volunteerism is an essential function, but it’s also trying to reconcile that with social isolation. Practices and protocols. So that is something to be mindful of. I think particularly, this is the marathon, this isn’t a sprint here. And whether it’s this week or in June, there’s going to be opportunities for people to plug into a way that makes sense for them.”

City Hall is now making an effort, as part of the Feeding New York plan, to deploy city staff to 14 food pantries across the city that are short on volunteers and are recruiting more through NYC Service, Garcia said at Wednesday’s briefing with the mayor.

Berg mentioned remote opportunities for people to get involved. At his own organization, there are opportunities to work the phones, calling grocery stores and other important entities, and working on the national hunger hotline.

Still, Berg stressed the importance of the larger, government-backed programs that help people secure food, with the nonprofit network playing a key supporting role.

“There are 800 to 1,000 of these agencies and while that sounds like a lot, there are 8,000 retail establishments that accept SNAP,” Berg said on Max & Murphy. “Most of these agencies, in good times, were only open maybe once or twice a month or sometimes once a week or a few hours a day. It’s no shock that a volunteer-run system with many of these people running these programs who are senior citizens, that a fair amount of them have been forced to close down.”

Other organizations are also trying to fill the gap and feed more New Yorkers. On April 8, de Blasio announced that New York Road Runners will donate $100,000 to the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City to provide 10,000 meals to frontline healthcare workers.

Bloomberg Philanthropies, established by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has donated $6 million to World Central Kitchen specifically for meals for health care workers in public hospitals. De Blasio praised his predecessor for that gift during Wednesday’s briefing.

The benefits programs run by HRA that help New Yorkers access food are becoming increasingly important as people lose their jobs amidst this crisis. Bonilla said that HRA has worked hard to move its services online while retaining the ability to process applications.

“Normally, on any given day we would get 6,000 applications [for assistance],” Bonilla said. “We’ve got about 16,000 in one day. That was at the beginning of the crisis, and we are trying to make sure our folks are working from home so that we can keep them safe, but that they are also able to process the unprecedented number of applications we are getting.”

Garcia explained that New York State has put in an application for Pandemic Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (PSNAP), which is pending with USDA. Another program the New York congressional delegation has been advocating for is Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (DSNAP), which relies on a federal disaster declaration.

As the city moves into a second month of extreme social distancing and stay-at-home orders, vulnerable populations, especially seniors, must be at the forefront of the operations, officials and advocates alike have said.

But with the closure of senior centers and the move to expanded food delivery, some seniors have not been getting the food they rely on.

“Now there's a different initiative for those, for the senior citizens who need help for folks who are homebound, for folks who are vulnerable and that the only solution for them is a delivery. There's also a growing delivery system,” de Blasio said at his briefing on April 7.  “This is something Lorraine Cortés-Vázquez [the Department for the Aging Commissioner] has been working on from the beginning and it's building all the time. So, anybody who truly needs a home delivery can call 3-1-1 and we'll get them that delivery. Or they can go to to sign up.”

As part of the new $170 million plan, Garcia explained that the city is going to register entire buildings of seniors run by NYCHA, city agencies, and nonprofits. In addition, case workers can directly enroll New Yorkers into the free meal delivery system.

[New Yorkers can find the nearest meal hub or food pantry here, find more information on food access here; or text NYC FOOD or NYC COMIDA to 877-877]

by Katie Kirker, Gotham Gazette

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Ben Max contributed to this article.

'No New Yorker Goes Hungry': De Blasio Announces Next Steps to Combat Food Emergency Wed, 15 Apr 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Council Moves Legislation Requiring City to Enroll More Eligible Seniors in Food Assistance jumaane williams alan maisel attend

(photo: John McCarten/City Council)

The City Council is set to pass legislation requiring two city agencies to collaborate on a plan to ensure more older New Yorkers who are eligible for food assistance are enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), otherwise known as food stamps.

It is one of four bills related to food access passed by the Council’s Committee on the General Welfare during a Monday hearing, just ahead of the full Council meeting on Tuesday where the legislation is expected to be voted through and sent to Mayor Bill de Blasio.

The bill (Intro. 1659-A) focused on enrolling eligible seniors into SNAP, a federally run program that provides nutrition benefits to low-income families and individuals, seeks to address a significant problem of hunger among the city’s older residents. The bill would require the city’s Department of Social Services (DSS) and Department for the Aging (DFTA) to “develop a plan to identify and enroll seniors who are eligible” for SNAP benefits, according to the bill summary.

“While DFTA and Meals on Wheels do help screen elderly hometown New Yorkers for SNAP benefits, many seniors aren’t connected to the benefits and are unaware of the program,” said Council Member Stephen Levin, the general welfare committee chair, when discussing the bill, the prime sponsor of which is Council Member Margaret Chin.

The senior population in New York City is booming, with all five boroughs seeing huge increases in older populations. Manhattan saw a 33% increase in the number of older adults between 2007 and 2017, according to a 2019 report from the Center for an Urban Future. Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx saw 22%, 18%, 27%, and 26% increases, respectively. The same report details how there has been declining numbers of people under 65 across the five boroughs. This disparity highlights the need for substantive senior services and increasing access to and enrollment in public benefits.

A 2017 report from New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer’s Office identified that over the last decade there had been a 19% increase in seniors in New York City, hitting 1.1 million, making up 13% of the city’s population. The report says the group was expected to continue to grow.

Last month, the Center for an Urban Future released a list of 63 policy recommendations to improve older adult services in the city. One policy recommendation urges the city to “undertake a citywide campaign to enroll older New Yorkers in benefits programs for which they are eligible,” using SNAP as an example.

“Fewer than half of the older adults eligible for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) are receiving nutrition benefits,” the recommendation reads. “DFTA should partner with NYC Opportunity, the Human Resources Administration (HRA), and the Department of Finance (DOF) to launch an extensive marketing and outreach campaign designed to call attention to the benefits programs available to older adults and to help them enroll.”

The bill passed by committee on Monday heads in that direction.

“I look forward to the bill’s implementation and certainly focusing on seniors and their eligibility for nutritional benefits, and SNAP is always a great thing because many seniors do not apply,” Council Member Vanessa Gibson said in support of the bill at Monday’s hearing.

The bill also requires comprehensive reporting. The Department of Social Services and Department for the Aging are required to annually submit a report that provides information on activities with respect to SNAP, the number of seniors enrolled and recertified in the program over the course of the previous year, a comparison of the rate of enrolment versus the number of seniors who the departments estimate are eligible for SNAP, identification of barriers to enrollment and recertification for seniors, and a plan to overcome the barriers.

The bill emphasizes the need to identify and address barriers related to “seniors who are unable to travel senior centers, whether due to physical limitation on lack of access to transportation or other reasons, and seniors who are not receiving other social services.”

The law would take effect immediately after adoption, either by the mayor signing it or it aging into law, while the reporting component is set to begin in April 2021.

The other bills passed by the committee on Monday were Intro. 1650, which mandates that the Human Resources Administration provides information about Health Bucks and farmers markets to participants of the SNAP program and two non-binding resolutions (1024 and 1025) that seek to expand SNAP to public college students and allow SNAP participants access to hot meals from participating delis, restaurants, and grocery stores. The resolutions are aimed at encouraging the federal government to adopt such regulations for SNAP.

Levin said “the proposed bills will make critical strides not only on hunger, but on the much needed improvements in the city's practices on planning, distribution, and data collection related to food.”

The four pieces of legislation are part of a larger food equity package moving through the Council this week and previously outlined in a speech and presentation last year by Council Speaker Corey Johnson. Other bills include codification of the Mayor's Office of Food Policy and the requirement that said office creates a long-term city food plan.

The bills are expected to be approved by the full City Council on Tuesday and have support from the de Blasio administration. Kate MacKenzie, the new director of the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy, said in a statement to Gotham Gazette that “the Administration strongly supports these bills and the broader food equity vision outlined by the Speaker. I look forward to working with the Council and advocates in creating and formalizing a robust food policy plan for the City of New York.”

by Katie Kirker, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Council Moves Legislation Requiring City to Enroll More Eligible Seniors in Food Assistance Mon, 10 Feb 2020 05:00:00 +0000
The Government Shutdown and Trump’s War on the Safety Net levin steve epap

City Council Member Stephen Levin, the author

We have now reached the longest government shutdown in history with no plans for reaching a deal anytime soon. Hundreds of thousands of federal workers’ jobs have been impacted and the shutdown has delayed mortgage applications, caused significant Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) staffing callouts, impacted basic healthcare access for Native Americans, and created waste pile-ups at national parks. Federal employees have even started looking for new jobs after being denied their paychecks last week with no sign of progress.

Worse still to come, the shutdown could put the nation’s safety net in peril. Forty-two million Americans rely on food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps); if the shutdown continues into February, we will see an increase in hunger nationwide as people lose benefits and are forced to turn to emergency assistance at food pantries.  Following pressure, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) committed to funding February SNAP benefits, however, if the shutdown continues, the Center of Budget and Policy Priorities estimates families could see their benefits cut by 40%. In New York City alone, almost 1.7 million residents depend on food stamps, and would be forced to worry if they’ll be able to provide enough food for their loved ones simply because of President Trump’s political game of chicken.

This government shutdown is callous and irresponsible; and we’ve already begun to see the impacts on nutrition benefits. According to Rewire News, over 2,500 grocery stores have stopped accepting SNAP because of paperwork filing issues caused by the federal government. States are also required to apply to issue February benefits by January 20, disrupting recipients’ normal monthly food aid schedule. One SNAP recipient in Brooklyn, Brenda Riley, with the Safety Net Activists said it best: "The president and other politicians who have created this shutdown should sacrifice their own salaries instead of hurting families who are already on soup lines."

Unfortunately, the president’s disregard for SNAP recipients is just the latest attack in a long line of attempts to dissolve the country’s safety net and harm low-income communities. Perhaps most concerning is the proposed executive order published late last month calling for new work restrictions on the SNAP program to cut off basic food assistance for hundreds of thousands of Americans. Under the current policy, single adults 18-through-49 are only granted SNAP benefits for three months out of every three years if they are not working more than 20 hours per week. However, longstanding bipartisan rules have allowed waivers to this restrictive policy, recognizing high rates of unemployment in communities and lack of job training access that make work requirements extremely burdensome. Trump’s proposed rule would significantly reduce allowances for job waivers, effectively cutting off the lowest income recipients who are unable to work more than 20 hours a week or who have a difficult time finding a job. This proposal undermines the very notion of a safety net, and unrealistically expects recipients to suddenly afford groceries, maintain stable housing and cover high health costs.

SNAP has been an incredibly successful program and made the difference for millions of families who don’t have to sacrifice groceries to be able to afford their monthly rent. In 2015, food assistance lifted 4.6 million Americans out of poverty, including 2 million children and 366,000 seniors. Adding burdensome work requirements would only make it harder for already struggling New Yorkers to cover basic expenses, and would further contribute to the city’s income divide.

It’s also bad economic policy. In 2017 alone, SNAP helped generate over $5 billion in economic impact in New York City, as every dollar spent through SNAP adds $1.79 to its local economy. The fact is, the vast majority of Americans who receive SNAP already work, and for those who don’t, it is largely due to a disability or circumstance that prevents them from working. These new restrictions reinforce harmful stereotypes in order to discourage participation and public investment in the program more broadly.

The onslaught of attacks on the SNAP program require that we fight back. New York City has long committed to investing in food assistance programs -- such as through passing legislation to increase awareness and enrollment among eligible residents and by making healthy, local food accessible to all SNAP recipients through the City’s GrowNYC’s Healthy Exchange Project. As a result of the Greenmarket partnership, over $1 million in SNAP benefits were redeemed at city farmers markets in 2016 alone. But federal restrictions are rolling back public assistance at a time when the need is increasing. Rent continues to rise and New Yorkers are facing stagnant wages and supermarket closures, making it difficult to afford nutritious food.

The government shutdown and recent cuts to SNAP are also impacting our city’s emergency food assistance program — providers have shared they are seeing increased traffic as people are supplementing their SNAP benefits with food pantries and soup kitchens. With recipients’ monthly SNAP benefits running out sooner, many are turning to food pantries to make ends meet, where monthly resources are depleted quicker and providers are struggling to keep up with the demand. If the shutdown continues much longer, New York City will need an emergency assistance contingency plan.

The president’s ongoing attack on food assistance is nothing short of draconian. I encourage New Yorkers to call on the administration and Republican leadership to join House Democrats’ efforts to reopen the government and protect New Yorkers’ access to food aid. And when the Food and Drug Administration’s public comment period on work requirements opens, I will be submitting comments in opposition to the proposed rule. Congress has long maintained bipartisan support of the food stamps program and should not let up now — the 42 million Americans who receive SNAP benefits are counting on us.

Stephen Levin is a City Council Member from Brooklyn and chair of the Council’s General Welfare Committee. On Twitter @StephenLevin33.

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The Government Shutdown and Trump’s War on the Safety Net Wed, 16 Jan 2019 05:00:00 +0000
At Hearing on Hunger, Council Presses De Blasio Administration on SNAP Participation lander menchaca hunger

CMs Lander, left, and Menchaca confer on Wednesday (photo via @NYCCouncil)

At an oversight hearing Wednesday about the city's efforts to fight hunger, members of the City Council general welfare committee questioned a panel of de Blasio administration officials about key city programs. Council members asked about participation in the Supplement and Nutritional Assistance Program (also known as “SNAP” or “food stamps”), Emergency Food Assistance Program (EFAP) efforts, and other components of anti-hunger services.

About 1.4 million New Yorkers - 16.5 percent of the population - are food insecure, according to data from the 2015 NYC Food Metrics Report. And as the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, an advocacy group, has found, 48 percent of food insecure New Yorkers between the ages of 15 and 65 were employed (2012-2014). Food insecurity is defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as “household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.”

Participation in SNAP for eligible New Yorkers has decreased under Mayor Bill de Blasio, as it did under his predecessor. Though approximately 1.7 million New Yorkers received SNAP assistance as of this past November, Coalition Against Hunger Executive Director Joel Berg estimates that around 500,000 people in the city are eligible but not enrolled.

“It seems that the reduction in benefits by the federal government is probably one of the largest reasons for why there has been a decrease in SNAP participation,” Human Resources Administration Chief Program Officer Lisa Fitzpatrick said at the Council hearing Wednesday.

Representatives from HRA, the city agency that handles the benefits, testified that the city is only aware of the SNAP participation rate among eligible senior citizens. It was calculated by using information from the Benefits Data Trust and Medicaid rolls. That number - 50 percent as of 2014 - may have increased because of a senior citizens outreach program launched by the de Blasio administration to get more eligible seniors signed up for food stamps.

Why HRA does not collect similar data about the larger population and food stamp participation was a question raised at Wednesday’s hearing.

City Council Member Brad Lander, a member of the committee, asked administration reps how good the city can make its understanding of the “universe” of eligible New Yorkers not receiving SNAP.

“The strategy has been less about ‘Can we get an actual concrete number?’” Barbara Turk, the food policy director in the mayor’s office, said. Turk proceeded to explain ways in which SNAP eligible people are engaged and encouraged to apply, such as during interviews from city workers on related subjects.

Though much relevant data is released in the city’s annual Food Metrics Report, the number of New Yorkers eligible for SNAP that aren’t receiving it is not.

“The question isn’t ‘Are we working hard?’” Lander asked. “The question is do we have the tool for evaluating how that’s going?”

“And I understand why it’s complicated,” Lander continued, “but I’ll be honest, it sounds like for a range of sensible reasons, you really don’t.”

Council Member Stephen Levin, chair of the committee, expressed similar concern when the topic came up later in the hearing.

Levin asked if the percentage of senior citizens not receiving SNAP benefits entitled to them changed because of the senior citizen outreach program launched by the de Blasio administration and nonprofit partners in September 2014. Turk said that “it’s a number that moves around a lot” and did not give a concrete answer.

“We want to make sure that it’s working and data should be reflecting the efforts and so we should be able to see the impacts and the trend numbers,” Levin said, mentioning, by contrast, that the city has observed a rise in high school graduation. “I think a good way to know how this program is working is whether or not that number is going up to 52 percent, or 53 percent or 55 percent.”

HRA emergency food assistance, SNAP enrollment outreach to New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) developments, and other topics related to city policy on hunger were also discussed at the hearing. After the panel of de Blasio administration representatives, advocates from the Coalition Against Hunger, the Citizens’ Committee for Children, and other organizations testified. Advocates added depth to the severity of the problem being outlined at the hearing and largely said that they were supportive of HRA Commissoiner Steve Banks' leadership.

It is possible that the SNAP participation rate could soon increase thanks to a change in state policy: one of the proposals included in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State budget book, released on Wednesday, would raise the state’s Gross Income Test for SNAP eligibility from 130 percent to 150 percent of the poverty line. This would make the benefits available to 750,000 households that previously could not get them, according to the budget book estimate.

by Ryan Brady, Gotham Gazette

At Hearing on Hunger, Council Presses De Blasio Administration on SNAP Participation Thu, 14 Jan 2016 03:36:21 +0000
New Guide to Public Assistance Aims to Help Neediest Navigate System snp cup hra

At Thursday's guide release (photo: @DMirandaSNP)

New Yorkers in need of public assistance provided by the city must navigate a maze of bureaucracy and paperwork. In an attempt to provide clarity and ensure that the neediest access available benefits, the Safety Net Project at the Urban Justice Center in collaboration with the Center for Urban Pedagogy today released a visual guide to the city’s welfare system.

Titled “Your Guide to Welfare NYC,” the poster is designed to help the 350,000 city residents who rely on public cash assistance to access benefits and protect themselves when those benefits are in danger of being revoked.

The guide was created over the last year through feedback from recipients of public benefits and advocacy groups. The city’s Human Resources Administration (HRA) also helped review the poster drafts and its commissioner, Steve Banks, was at Thursday’s launch event.

The Safety Net Project has printed 2,000 copies, a portion of which will be distributed today throughout the five boroughs while the online version of the guide is disseminated through social media and other channels.

“With over 350,000 people relying on public assistance, there aren’t enough resources to ensure everyone has access,” said Denise Miranda, managing director of the Safety Net Project. “There’s an urgent need to help those people who rely on benefits for their survival.”

Going forward, Miranda hopes that they can translate the multi-page poster into different languages and print and distribute on a larger scale. “We’re hopeful that the city might participate in raising funds for distribution,” she said. “It’s a resource tool that will be invaluable to New Yorkers.”

The poster - in red, white and blue - has a step-by-step visual guide divided into three easily readable sections with graphics. The first section lays down the basics of eligibility for benefits, how they are disseminated, and where to apply. The second section gives simple instructions for how to apply, including the documents needed and tips for visiting HRA centers. The final section shows people how to retain benefits, avoid sanctions, and settle disputes with HRA.

nyc welfare guide via safey net

Showing renewed cooperation between HRA and advocacy groups, the release was held at HRA’s Waverly Job Center in midtown. “We have been partnering with community groups all over the city,” Commissioner Banks told reporters. “Over the past year we’ve been making dramatic reforms in the agency and we think efforts like this are helpful to get information out to our clients. We look forward to continue to partner with the Urban Justice Center and other efforts to make sure our clients are aware of the services that we have and help them navigate that process.”

Under Banks, who was appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio, HRA has seen significant changes from past administrations. “After 20 years of administrations that showed disregard, some might say disdain, for people in need of assistance, there’s been a shift in outreach, policy and culture in the new administration,” said Safety Net Project’s Miranda.

HRA has also been making efforts in easing the process of accessing benefits. Just last week, the city announced a new website,, to help people apply for  Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, also known as food stamps. The city estimates that more than half a million New Yorkers qualify for SNAP but have not availed of them.

“Anything that helps people know about and navigate the complicated process [of public assistance] is important,” said Liz Accles, executive director of Community Food Advocates. “The administration has taken big steps forward. But there have been 20 years of policy and public practice in place that make it nearly impossible to access public assistance. It takes the full effect of both the city administration and advocacy organizations to see that people are able to get assistance and navigate the process.”

Wendy O’Shields has volunteered at Safety Net Project for the last year and worked on the new guide. Her perspective is doubly relevant considering that during the Great Recession, she had to reluctantly apply for public assistance. “There was nothing I could reference to learn the rules that HRA goes by,” she told Gotham Gazette after today’s press conference. “I had to learn by the experience, the school of hard knocks. It would have been very helpful going through crises if there was something I could have referenced so I could have not made the learning curve beginner mistakes.”

The new poster does just that. Perhaps more aptly called a pamphlet, it translates legal technical information into conversational language and has a flow-chart-like design. “We often think of it as building a narrative that helps people move through the information in a way that’s accessible,” said Christine Gaspar, executive director of the Center for Urban Pedagogy. “The process is about bringing those pieces together.”

by Samar Khurshid, Gotham Gazette

New Guide to Public Assistance Aims to Help Neediest Navigate System Thu, 30 Apr 2015 19:10:45 +0000