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Soup Kitchens Struggle to Feed New Yorkers Despite Thanksgiving Donations

By Amy Zimmer | November 21, 2011 8:21am
A man takes food at a soup kitchen in the Food Bank For New York network. Soup kitchens and pantries have seen "near record level" needs, experts say.
A man takes food at a soup kitchen in the Food Bank For New York network. Soup kitchens and pantries have seen "near record level" needs, experts say.
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Food Bank For New York/Lindsay Buckley

By Della Hasselle and Amy Zimmer

DNAinfo Staff

MANHATTAN — Many soup kitchens and food pantries across the city have been struggling to meet expanding demands while their budgets are shrinking. As they're hopeful about donations for the Thanksgiving holiday, they’re bracing for the possibility of more cuts on the horizon.

The Food Bank for New York, which distributes food to a network of roughly 1,000 local programs citywide, said this summer saw several emergency food providers having to temporarily close their doors. The organization is worried that food assistance could be slashed even more by a special Congressional committee on deficit reduction, which is supposed to vote Wednesday on ways to cut $1.2 trillion from the federal government over 10 years.

“We’ve seen at near record levels [of need],” said Triada Stampas, the Food Bank’s director of government relations. “Certainly the highest we’ve seen in the history of this organization.”

Soup kitchens and food pantries are bearing the brunt of New York’s prolonged 9 percent unemployment rate, with the emergency food system now “addressing chronic need,” she said.

Jewel Jones, director of Inwood's Love Kitchen Inc., said his organization was down to its last supplies in July and would have closed if he hadn’t called the Midwest Food Bank from Illinois to bring a tractor-trailer with food.

"In the 23 years I’ve been here, it's the first time I had come within a week of closing,” Jones said.  

The Midwest Food Bank returned this weekend with a delivery for the Love Kitchen's Thanksgiving dinner, which will take place on Wednesday.

Jones said his soup kitchen is feeding 100 people a week, which is 30 more mouths than usual.  But the group's annual budget is down $10,000 to $150,000 and its donations have decreased 25 percent since May, from $60,000 to $45,000, he said.

“We’re getting a lot more people now, especially women and children," Jones said. "They’re just coming out of the woodworks."

Whether large or small, food providers are hurting. Chelsea's Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen saw funding from the state's Hunger Prevention and Nutrition Assistance Program more than halved earlier this year, cut from $330,000 to $150,000. Lines have been growing longer ever day with an average of 1,200 meals served daily. ‬

The demand for emergency food assistance has increased an average of 25 percent since 2008, according to City Harvest, and the Food Bank found that 92 percent of programs in its network reported an increase in demand last year.

A 2010 survey from the New York City Coalition Against Hunger found that half of emergency food providers were not able to meet the demand and had to turn away hungry New Yorkers, cut portion sizes or reduce hours.

The City Council's general welfare committee is holding an oversight hearing on the growing demand for food assistance on Monday, and the New York City Coalition Against Hunger is set to release its 2011 survey on Tuesday.

Rev. Jennifer Linman, at the Church of the Epiphany, at York Avenue and East 74th Street, also said she's been seeing new people coming to her church's Wednesday night dinners.

"My sense is we're having people who've never been here before," she said, noting that average attendance went from 100 to 120, spiking to more than 150 for the last Wednesday in September.

"It was really shocking for us," Linman said of that evening. "Nobody had ever gone away hungry before that night. People left before we were able to feed them."

As the need has increased, the Church of the Epiphany has seen its monthly budget slashed by more than 30 percent from $5,500 to $3,800, Linman said.  With rising food costs and declining Food Bank donations, the church has had to cut down on meat, for instance.

But Linman said that private donations have been up over the past year, more than 30 percent from $17,000 to $25,000.

"Our congregation is committed to feeding the poor," Linman said. "Blessedly, I'm in a place where nobody complains about it."

Many soup kitchens and food pantries are hopeful that the holiday season, which is traditionally when donations peak, will be fruitful.

"We're hoping that the donations that come in over the Thanksgiving holiday will make up some of the difference," said Stephen Grimaldi, executive director of the Yorkville Common Pantry, at East 109th street, which is $40,000 over budget for the fiscal year.

Demand has increased by 10 percent, Grimaldi said. Meanwhile, their monthly spending is reaching $60,000 a month, which is $10,000 more than usual.

The Yorkville Common Pantry has also been finding cheaper alternatives to meat, like beans or peanut butter, and finding other ways to cut costs, Grimaldi said.

But if further cuts hit the pantry and donations hit a lull, the future could be bleak. “Even though our motto is to never turn people away, we might have to,” he said.

WHERE TO GET A HOT MEAL?

The Food Bank For New York has a soup kitchen and food pantry locator to help find programs throughout the city. The New York City Coalition Aganist Hunger also has a website to find local food programs.

WHERE TO VOLUNTEER?

- Check out the New York City Coalition Against Hunger's Volunteer Matching Center, which helps search volunteer opportunities by neighborhood, nearby subways lines, available times, and personal skills sets, etc.

- Vist New York Care's website, which runs volunteer programs for 1,200 nonprofits, city agencies and public schools.

- Start a virtual food drive for the Food Bank For New York, donate food or volunteer doing anything from serving hot meals at the Community Kitchen in Harlem, packing food at a Bronx warehouse or staffing at fundraising events.