In a city that often complains about growing waistlines, the cost of a gym membership and milk’s propensity to overshadow the price of gas, “hunger” can be a dodgy concept. Portlier New Yorkers may often wish to experience it a bit more often. For a growing number of Queens’ children and seniors, hunger is the norm, according to a report released by the New York City Coalition Against Hunger.
The coalition’s analysis shows one in six kids and one in 12 seniors over the age of 60 struggle to meet their regular dietary needs. The report also found a record high one in eight Queens residents don’t have enough in their fridges to meet their needs.
The lack of largesse is also straining the network of organizations trying to help, with 80 percent of the borough’s food pantries and soup kitchens reporting an increase in need for their services, with 75 percent seeing an increase in senior citizens.
Citywide, 56 percent of pantries and kitchens have either turned away clients, reduced their portions or limited their hours of operation.
The growing mass of hungry New Yorkers is the result of a weakening social safety net, increased cost of living and stagnant wages, said the coalition’s Executive Director Joel Berg.
“Queens is thought of as a bedrock middle class and working class borough,” he said. “The fact that there’s such a problem even in Queens shows what a vast problem this is citywide.”
He specifically pointed to the increase in housing and static wages as leaving Queens residents “squeezed from both sides.”
The figures reflect the toll pre-Hurricane Sandy, and are sure to rise, Berg said. The aftermath of Sandy has had the perverse effect of flooding hurricane-ravaged neighborhoods with more food than needed, leaving others in the lurch, he added.
The pressure on Queens’ elderly, however, is becoming hard to handle.
“Thousands of older adults in Western Queens face the challenge of being able to afford sufficient and nutritious food,” said Judith Zangwill, the executive director at Sunnyside Community Services. Sunnyside Community Services provides meals at its senior center and adult day services program and meals-on-wheels to homebound elderly. It also assists seniors in enrolling in food stamps.
“Raising awareness about hunger among the elderly is a responsibility we all have,” Zangwill added.
The report is a compilation of data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s food security analysis, a pre-hurricane survey of food pantries and soup kitchens and a follow-up questionnaire after the storm.
Their plight is compounded by a need to bolster government-funded assistance programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the oft-overlooked meals provided in school.
While the initial urge may be to volunteer time at local pantries, only 10 percent reported a need for more manpower and help, with 47 percent saying they needed no volunteers at all. The bulk of them lack the sort of overhead-consuming technical work typically provided by high-skilled volunteers such as grant writers, website designers and policy advocacy support.
The coalition launched a website, www.hungervolunteer.org, to give volunteers guidance on how to best help the hungry.
The best remedy, according to Berg, is adopting policies that promote living wages for the working poor while doing everything possible to ensure those in need avoid hunger by using government assistance programs, with the long term goal of making sure such programs are no longer necessary.
“I wish people didn’t need food stamps,” he said. “I wish everyone that had a job earned enough to feed their families.”