Bed-Stuy Soup Kitchen Braces for Influx After Food Stamp Cut

By Paul DeBenedetto on February 5, 2014 9:26am 

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 St. John's Bread and Life serves about 40,000 people a month, and could see more with the latest cuts.
St. John's Bread and Life May See an Influx of People as SNAP Benefits Are Cut
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BEDFORD-STUYVESANT — On a recent Wednesday morning, as temperatures reached 7 degrees in the city, Troy Baker began his daily trek.

For more than a decade after his release from prison in 2002, where he served a robbery sentence, Baker, 44, said he's been in the city's shelter system, unable to find work because of a mental disorder.

On this morning, he made his way from the massive Bedford-Atlantic Armory to St. John's Bread and Life, an emergency feeding program at 795 Lexington Ave. in Bed-Stuy, where he stopped for a bite to eat in the soup kitchen.

"I can get out of the cold a few hours, have some food," Baker said. "It makes it easier."

St. John's Bread and Life is one of the largest programs of its kind in the city. In January alone, it served about 40,000 people in its home office and through its mobile soup kitchen.

But staff and supporters say resources may soon be stretched thin thanks to a vote in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday that cut food stamp benefits by $8 billion — a move advocates say will disproportionately affect New York City and increase the number of Bread and Life's clients.

"It's a huge callousness," said Bread and Life Executive Director Anthony Butler. "The federal government has completely gotten rid of the responsibility."

The Senate on Tuesday voted to pass a new 10-year, $956 billion farm bill, a once-regular farming and agriculture spending measure that over the last three years was stalled due largely to congressional partisanship.

But the bill also contains $8 billion in cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly referred to as food stamps.

The move comes just two months after a SNAP provision in the Recovery Act expired, leaving the average recipient family with $40 less per month, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The newest round will cut an additional $90 per family, according to reports.

Since the first round of cuts in November, more and more people have come to Bread and Life for food, Butler said.

On Jan. 28, for example, demand was so high in the soup kitchen that they ran out of food and had to close early. Two days later, there was enough food to meet demand, but the kitchen was so crowded that clients remained inside well after close.

All this despite days of snow and freezing cold weather, which Butler said traditionally leads to smaller crowds.

"It's indicative of the need that people have," Butler said. "The hunger and the need for food is driving people out in very bad conditions." 

The farm bill will hit New Yorkers especially hard, according to the New York City Coalition Against Hunger.

U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, whose district includes the area surrounding Bread and Life, was among the congressmen who voted against the bill, framing it as an attempt to pass long-stalled legislation on the backs of New Yorkers.

"No one will get hurt more than New York," Jeffries said. "We regularly send more money to the federal government than we get back in return, and this SNAP bill will only exacerbate that disparity."

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand voted against the Senate bill on Tuesday, calling it "disturbing." Sen. Chuck Schumer voted in favor of the bill.

In addition to the soup kitchen and a daily food pantry, Bread and Life offers case workers to help people find work, sign up for Medicaid, obtain identification and combat substance abuse.

They also give free computer courses, host holiday dinners and collect coats and clothing for when it's cold.

But with each cut from Washington comes more clients — and more fundraising. The facility is about 90 percent privately funded, Butler said.

"We're running close to our limit," Butler said. "I can't handle any more people with the hours I'm doing and the money I'm spending."

Bed-Stuy native Monique Mitaynes, 36, is one of those who will struggle under the new bill. She started going to Bread and Life about three years ago on a friend's recommendation.

Mitaynes, who struggled with addiction, visits the organization both for a hot meal and to visit her on-site case worker, who she said was "like a mother."

Now she's clean, recently got married and is working toward a better life.

"I was going through a lot of heartache and pain," Mitaynes said. "They made me a whole different person."

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