Brooklyn food pantries struggle to keep up with demand
A knock on the door, your signature, a flash of your ID, and you’re in.
Once inside, residents are handed 2 bags: a “hard bag” of canned foods and soup, and a “soft bag” of rice, pasta and cereal. A thump on the side door and a square metal window swings open, and those in need are given a low-in-sodium, sugar-free bagged lunch of milk, fresh fruit and juice, a fruit cup and two sandwiches.
The Bay Ridge Center in Brooklyn began feeding the community more than 35 years ago, but since state budget cuts last fall, money is tighter than ever.
“We used to be able to get by by the skin of our teeth,” food pantry administrator Samantha Churak said. “But since the cut in November for SNAP, we’re basically out of funding.”
New York State’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as Food Stamps, boasts of serving “nearly 1.8 million low-income New Yorkers” and aims to help residents afford healthier food choices. On Nov. 1, 2013, however, program participants and food pantries were hit hard when the temporary boost in benefits put in place by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 ended.
Under the Act, SNAP was given about $45.2 billion in funds to help families and individuals throughout the country affected by the 2008 financial crisis. Last November’s cut reduced the SNAP budget by $5 billion in 2014 alone and, since then, the Bay Ridge Center and other New York City pantries have seen an influx in traffic.
“We’ve seen a huge increase since November,” Churak said. “We’re seeing a lot more of the population because they’ve run out of groceries.”
According to City Harvest, a nonprofit New York City-based organization that supplies food to pantries, banks and other nutrition programs around the city, poverty and food insecurity remain “stubbornly high.” Jenique Jones, City Harvest’s senior manager of agency relations, said the organization saw a 43-percent increase in visits since 2008 and the organization is delivering four million more pounds of food this year than it did in 2013 in order to keep up with the growing number of hungry New Yorkers.
“For many families, the question isn’t what to have for dinner, but am I going to have dinner,” Jones said. “Many residents visiting soup kitchens and food pantries are working, but are still unable to make ends meet and they don’t qualify for government support.”
The Bay Ridge Center — which was originally the Bay Ridge Nutrition and Home Care Program — was founded in 1976 when Rev. Darrell Helmers, then-pastor of Bethlehem Lutheran Church, began feeding his congregation. The program soon expanded into the Bay Ridge Center for Older Adults, and into an emergency food pantry and brown bag lunch service that collectively feed more than 17,000 families and individuals each year. The center also works with Meals-On-Wheels to deliver more than 500 hot meals to homebound Brooklyn residents.
Marc Scott, the pantry’s coordinator, first started working at the pantry five-and-a-half years ago as an art teacher at the senior center below the pantry. Not long after he started teaching, he found himself helping to pack and distribute the food bags and decided to take the job as coordinator.
“I came up here and thought, ‘This is great!’” Scott said. “It makes you really feel good.”
As a result of the huge state cuts, though, the pantry could no longer pay Scott, and on Nov. 13 — Scott’s last day — the pantry became strictly volunteer-based. But other than the daily help the pantry receives from a handful of volunteers from the Guild for Exceptional Children, a nonprofit organization that offers services to children and adults with disabilities, volunteers are scarce. Sometimes some of the pantry’s office workers don a hairnet and a pair of latex gloves to help pack the lunch bags.
In addition to letting go of staff, the pantry was forced to cut down on hours and switch from being open five days a week to operating only on the first Monday of every month, starting Dec. 1. The brown bag lunch service, however, will maintain its daily schedule.
The effects of this change in hours, Churak said, remain to be seen. The pantry may have to devise a number system to keep order, she said, and will also set up a Client Choice program that will allow residents to choose what they want. The center will also begin planning a donation campaign after the Thanksgiving rush is over in order to raise money for the pantry and brown bag lunch services specifically.
Though the pantry does get food donations during the holidays from individuals, churches and schools in the neighborhood, the center is most in need of monetary donations, which Churak said don’t come often. Funds, she said, would allow the pantry to order from vendors and start off each week with a full stock.
By the end of the week, only a few boxes and cases of food are left in the pantry’s small storage space. When a woman came to the brown bag lunch window on a Friday and asked for juice and fresh fruit, she was told that they had run out earlier in the week. Only a few minutes later, a man in a baseball cap was also told that they were out of his favorite product.
“Oh … That’s the best part, you know?” the man said as he thanked Scott and walked away.
When the stock is full, though, there’s not much room for any more products.
“We can take things in here and there,” Churak said of food donations.
Churak hopes that the pantry’s donation campaign will raise awareness and bring in much-needed funds that will allow the center to continue to serve the borough that is, according to 2012 City Harvest statistics, the most food insecure in the city.
“I hope we can expand into a larger space, receive more funding and assist people on a more regular basis,” she said.
To donate to the pantry, send donations to Bay Ridge Center, 411 Ovington Ave., Brooklyn, NY 11209 — Attn: Samantha Churak.
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