“The first time I came to a food pantry I was crying,” she said. “I never expected that one day I’d be waiting online to get a box of cereal and vegetables.”
Michelle’s story of losing work and then turning, for the first time, to food assistance programs as a means to help make ends meet has become common across the city, where an increase in hunger this year has driven a diverse array of residents to food pantries and soup kitchens in record numbers.
The demand for food at emergency food providers in Queens increased by 93 percent in 2009, according to a study by the New York Coalition Against Hunger (NYCCAH), a food stamp outreach organization.
In Brooklyn, demand jumped by 89 percent.
In both boroughs, the amount of food distributed at soup kitchens, food pantries, and through brown bag programs has not kept up with demand: 60 percent of Queens agencies, and 59 percent in Brooklyn, don’t have enough food to meet the needs of the hungry.
While those numbers are high, the percentage of overstretched agencies citywide actually decreased this year due to emergency food assistance funding secured through the federal stimulus package.
Aid from the Obama Administration may have prevented a much larger catastrophe, said Joel Berg, NYCCAH’s executive director, but hunger remains a growing problem in New York.
“It looks like a massive majority of people are trying to make ends meet,” said Berg, who announced NYCCAH’s study results on November 25 in front of the Center for Hope International, which runs a Long Island City food pantry.
Bishop Mitchell Taylor, the center’s senior pastor, said the food pantry is on track to serve 27,000 people this year, up from 17,000 a year ago.
Taylor appeared at the center with Berg and Congressman Anthony Weiner to highlight the study's findings and call for an end to the practice of fingerprinting applicants for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), better known as food stamps assistance.
New York is just one of four remaining states with a food stamps fingerprinting system. Advocates of the system - like Mayor Michael Bloomberg - have long contended the system cuts down on fraud. Weiner dismissed the claim.
“The mayor’s been obsessed with fingerprinting,” Weiner told this paper, despite statistics showing the system does not reduce administrative mistakes or cases of fraud.
Weiner, who is pushing to end the fingerprinting process, said Congress, in tandem with the Obama Administration, must address the issue.
“There are policies that sometimes take Congress to act on,” he said, adding, “I think this administration gets it.”
As Weiner and food advocates spoke of overarching food policy reform, people standing online nearby said they were more interested in finding food for the next day and beyond.
“I’m just looking for food,” said Pedro Compre, an unemployed former factory worker living in Astoria.
Recent reports have suggested growing food assistance rolls are doing away with the stigma popularly attached to public assistance, but for Compre, making his first visit to a food pantry, the stigma seemed very real indeed.
“It’s been a while since I worked,” said Compre, who appeared uncomfortable waiting for his free food. “I’ll take whatever they give me.”