Thousands of Queens families are not getting the food stamp assistance to which they might be entitled, according to a City Council report released last Thursday.
The city found exactly 197,844 Queens households potentially left out of the food stamp program, meaning that thousands of those most vulnerable to hunger — Queens kids — were not getting the food assistance they needed.
City officials arrived at the figure by counting the number of households receiving Medicaid benefits and breaking the figures down by zip code. Families who meet guidelines for Medicaid frequently qualify for food assistance from the federal government as well.
“The food stamp data match initiative is a simple and cost effective way to use technology to bring much needed food support to low-income New Yorkers,” City Council Speaker Christine Quinn said at last week’s press conference at Long Island City’s Center of Hope International Church.
Quinn blamed the shockingly high number of eligible families not getting assistance partly on the stigma of food stamps, as well as working-class families not realizing they qualified for the program.
Based on the information in the report, the city planned to mail pamphlets, advertise in coupon circulars and set up tables outside check-out lines in supermarkets in the zip codes with the most eligible people not getting food stamps.
Among the hot spots in the report were zip code 11355 in Flushing with 11,130 household matches, 11368 in Corona with 13,390 and 11373 in Elmhurst with 13,540 — making Queens second only to Brooklyn as the borough with the most needy families left out of the food stamp program.
“This is a common sense solution — we are connecting those who qualify with the help they need,” Councilman Eric Gioia said.
Lawmakers praised the efforts of people like Bishop Mitchell Taylor, senior pastor of the Center of Hope church, home of the Bread Of Life food pantry.
But because of spiraling food costs, rising fuel prices and increased demand for assistance due to jobs lost from the recent economic downturn, most pantries can’t afford to give away more than $20 to $30 worth of food away to families at one time, Taylor said.
Food stamps, on the other hand, offer up to $200 in monthly assistance for families struggling to keep ahead of rising health care costs, mortgage payments and energy prices. And that could mean the difference between kids getting fed three times a day, rather than two.
To help get the word out, the city will work with public school teachers in the most affected zip codes, reaching out to children and parents about food stamp eligibility.
According to last week’s report, even more affluent parts of Queens had a surprising number of food stamp-eligible households as well. Councilman David Weprin of Hollis was surprised that about 2,300 potential food stamp eligible families in his district were not getting assistance.
The Congressional Budget Office estimated that 27.8 million Americans would receive assistance through the Food Stamp Program in 2008, with the number projected to top 28 million in 2009 as even middle-class families start to feel the pinch of higher food prices.
“We’ve gone from worse to worser,” said executive director of the Coalition Against Hunger, Joel Berg.
On Monday, dozens of people lined up outside the Center of Hope food pantry on 12th Street in L.I.C., waiting in line with carts, bags and totes.
Inside, church staff member Carol Sutton hurriedly redeemed each food pantry ticket, good for a blue bag full of lettuce, kale and carrots, given out to pantry clients every two weeks. Outside, a class on preparing fresh vegetables was about to begin.
Not just aiming to put more food on family dinner tables, the city wants to make meals healthier as well. “Access to healthy foods is critical to the future health of all New Yorkers,” said the city’s Food Policy Coordinator Ben Thomases.
Through the Green Cart and Healthy Bodegas Initiatives, some neighborhoods without a Greenmarket or a fresh produce store will get access to affordable fresh fruits and vegetables. However in Queens, the mobile food carts are currently only allowed in St. Albans, Springfield Gardens and the Rockaways.