Free food offerings (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)
Even before the COVID-19 crisis, far too many of our neighbors didn’t know where their next meal would come from. Today, the number of food-insecure New Yorkers stands at a staggering 1.6 million people. In the Bronx, 24% of residents—including children, seniors, and working families—are impacted. While it is crucial to continue supporting the civic sector, which includes community-based organizations, faith partners, and food pantries, we must also ensure that these essential partners are not the first and only line of defense against hunger.
To make it easier for New Yorkers, especially seniors, to follow the public health guidance of remaining at home and maintaining social distance, the City established a suite of programs to address the food access challenges presented by the pandemic. GetFoodNYC’s Emergency Home Food Delivery program has delivered more than 65 million meals to date, and Grab & Go operations at Department of Education sites have distributed a similar number, no questions asked, through community hub sites as well as to families whose children are enrolled in blended and remote learning.
Tens of millions of dollars in City funds have been distributed directly to food pantries to ensure that resources get to the people and places where they are most needed. And now, pantries are receiving fresh produce, including produce grown in the region, to support the health of New Yorkers, as well as the livelihoods of our regional farm economy. The City has distributed over 2.2 million pounds of produce to pantries so far, with more on the way.
Even with these supplemental efforts, food pantries - essential to the communities they serve - have been stretched to the max. Some have even had to close their doors as a result of their dependence on the older adult volunteers who have traditionally contributed to their operation. At the same time, many more have expanded their efforts to feed the staggering lines that form in the early hours of the days, and the two of us joined one such operation last week to distribute Thanksgiving meals at the Bronx’s Mitchel Houses.
Despite these incredible efforts, though, the network of pantries across the city was simply not built to handle a crisis of this scale. In order to provide solutions for the growing numbers of food insecure New Yorkers, one thing is clear: we’ve got to go beyond pantries.
According to a recent report by Columbia University, only one in four people who face food hardships actually turn to pantries. Who are these food insecure New Yorkers? Look around: school children, college students, working adults and families, seniors living on a fixed income. The face of hunger in the City of New York is diverse. If we are to truly address food insecurity in this city, we need to make it easier for people to get food where they are: in their local bodegas or grocery stores or on their way to work, and prepared food as well as groceries.
For the last four years, the City has fought hard to protect our safety net of Federal Food Assistance Programs, the legal designation for pantries at the federal level, from being systematically eroded by the Trump Administration. Now, we must work to reverse the damage that has been done by changes like the Public Charge Rule, which would deny green cards to immigrants who use SNAP or other public benefits, and go even further to make food assistance accessible to anyone in need.
The SNAP program – formerly known as Food Stamps – brings revenues of over $2 billion to New York City, yet only three retailers are authorized to accept online payments (two of which are the corporate behemoths Amazon and Walmart). This city is made up of tens of thousands of small food businesses and independent retailers. We must empower them to accept online SNAP now, which would offer more options to New Yorkers and new revenue opportunities for small or struggling businesses. SNAP benefits overall must be increased. More health insurers need to incentivize and subsidize the cost of healthy foods.
More than anything, we need solutions that don’t just address the need for a meal tonight. We need to fix the system that makes food insecurity possible in the first place and this starts with paying people living wages, destigmatizing food assistance, and providing more options. Our pantries are doing incredible work, and charitable food is an important short-term fix, but it is problematic to rely on charities alone, particularly when government can, and must, do so much more to address this issue.