Queens food pantries are getting sucked dry in the summer heat, and the fall may not offer any reprieve with proposed cuts to the Farm Bill, an overarching law passed every five years that allocates 80 percent of its funding to anti-hunger programs such as food stamps and the Emergency Food Assistance Program, which provides food to pantries and soup kitchens.
Congress will reconvene on Sept. 10 and must make some sort of decision on the bill by Sept. 30.
In 2007, Congress took additional time and passed the Farm Bill in 2008. The passed legislation reset the minimum a family could receive in food stamps and the income limit to get the benefits to adjust for inflation, which had not been addressed for decades.
This year the House has proposed a $16 billion slash to food stamps. The Senate has proposed a $4 billion cut to food stamps.
“The goal is to move on from food pantries, and food stamps can really help that,” Long Island City-based Hour Children Food Pantry coordinator Abigael Burke said. “It’s pretty scary with all the cuts we see. I hope Congress does something.”
Congressman Joe Crowley (D-Queens, Bronx) said he is concerned about cuts to the food stamp program. People who have food stamps can buy their own food instead of relying on a pantry to hand them food; although some food pantries allow people to shop and pick out food, some do not. Additionally, Crowley said, food stamps allow people to make their own food decisions and in some cases they can pick healthier options.
“This is a moral failure when thousands of Queens residents— New Yorkers in all boroughs — go hungry each year,” Crowley said. “We should be strengthening programs not weakening them.”
Crowley said he recognizes how a lack of a Farm Bill would be devestating nationwide, and something must be passed. He added that he is against the House’s proposal. The Senate’s bill is a better version, he said, but he is “not thrilled” about it.
Triada Stampas, senior director of government relations for the Food Bank for New York City, called the proposals clawbacks with even deeper slashes coming, adding “cutting food stamps will only bring more people to New York food pantries. It’s absolutely the wrong strategy.”
The last year has already been difficult for city food pantries and soup kitchens without having to deal with Farm Bill cuts.
Pantries lost 11 million meals from federal cuts in The Emergency Food Assistance Program. This is a 40 percent reduction in the amount of free food to low-income New Yorkers, according to the Food Bank for New York City. The 150 pantries and soup kitchens in Queens have 3,045,759 fewer meals from TEFAP to work with.
The pantries that the Chronicle spoke to are seeing more young people and many more newly unemployed individuals. To deal with increased volume and fewer TEFAP food crates, pantries have chosen different paths from getting grants to supplement packaged foods with produce to reducing hours of operation.
For the summer the Hour Children Food Pantry mandates that families visit once a month instead of twice and that seniors visit twice instead of three times, to make up for a 50 person a month increase.
The pantry receives three different types of vegetables each week directly from an area farm. About 30 families showed up each week for six weeks to learn how to use these veggies in their everyday meals and some nutritional tips.
In Richmond Hill individuals begin lining up at 2:30 a.m. to get into the River Fund food bank at 7 a.m. when it opens, Executive Director Swami Durga Das said.
“All components are adding up to a crisis and we don’t know what will be the outcome,” Das said.
The food bank credits not cutting hours of operation to hustling and being creative with non-TEFAP donors and lots more produce. Two years ago the River Fund received about 80 cases of food from TEFAP a week; now the organization gets about 20 cases of food.
Cynthia Zalisky of the Queens Jewish Community Council in Forest Hills said budget cuts and increased demand have been a double blow in the last 12 to 18 months, because as a Kosher pantry, it has to be pickier than some other locations. “We can’t just give out cans of Dinty Moore stew,” she said.
The pantry also has seen an uptick in patrons.
“We’re seeing a lot more families in the last year to 18 months, newly unemployed or underemployed people who not long ago would have been considered middle class,” Zalisky said.
The Ridgewood Older Adult Center in Glendale has seen increased need every year since it opened 10 years ago as well. The pantry recently had to put out a sign for a week and a half saying it was out of food and thus had to close its doors for a time, Executive Director Jacqueline Eradiri said.
People come in from once a week to once a month. Ridgewood is closed the first week of the month because people usually are flush for the time being with their new allotment of food stamps.
Eradiri said the center was hit very hard when a food pantry at a nearby senior center and another one at a church closed in recent years.
“Everyone wound up coming to us,” she said.