New York City's Food Pantries Are Struggling to Keep Up With a Growing Demand for Meals

The line outside VETS, Inc. a food pantry and Food Bank For New York City member agency in Jamaica, Queens.
The line outside VETS, Inc. a food pantry and Food Bank For New York City member agency in Jamaica, Queens.
Joey O'Loughlin

A working mother of three kids, who could barely make rent. A disabled veteran. Homeless senior citizens. These were people among the 957 who lined up outside a food pantry on a recent morning in Jamaica, Queens waiting for a warm meal.

"Poverty has no face," says Swami Durga Das, executive director of The River Fund, a non-profit food pantry in Queens that served those 957 families that day. "The people wrapped around the block by 8 a.m. could be anyone – even your neighbor."

He adds that volunteers have begun setting up at 5 a.m. in the days leading up to Thanksgiving because of the increase in need: "The fact is too many New Yorkers are suffering from food deficiency," he says. 

As the holidays creep closer, that need has worsened and can be traced to federal food stamp benefit cuts, according to a report released this week by the Food Bank For New York City. Since November 2013, when the federal government downsized the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), New Yorkers “have lost more than 116 million meals,” according to the report, entitled "Hunger Cliff NYC: Bridging a City’s Monthly 5.3 Million Meal Loss." Those reductions lead to growing demand at food pantries and soup kitchens, forcing them to increase hours of operation as a result.

This "Hunger Cliff," according to the Food Bank, has led to the "immediate loss, on average, of nearly $18 per month in benefits for more than one million New York City households," in a report released Monday. The cuts were the result of a compromise in Congress in 2010, when in order to pay for an increase of six cents per meal in the school lunch program, SNAP benefits were cut in 2013.

The more than five million meals lost per month for hungry New Yorkers represent more food "than even most of the country’s largest food banks distribute" says the report.

"We’re approaching a holiday season that puts such an emphasis on food, and sharing a meal together is the way that we show love," says Triada Stampas, Vice President for Research and Public Affairs for The Food Bank For New York City. "It’s no coincidence this ends up being when hunger awareness is at its peak."

Last year, over a million New York households were deemed "food-insecure" – meaning they lacked consistent access to nutritionally adequate food. That includes one in six people living in New York City. It hasn’t gotten any better, and New York City residents are increasingly forced to rely on emergency food programs, such as food pantries and soup kitchens, and these days food banks across the city are struggling to meet the need of New Yorkers unable to afford meals. Stampas explains that the state allocated a couple million dollars in federal money for a portion of the year between July and September. Now that that money has been spent to meet the growing need, emergency food programs are left to operate with less food.

"We’re rich on compassion, but short on capital," says Stampas. "It’s an intensely stressful time for New Yorkers in need and it’s felt by those on the front lines who are trying to help them."

She adds that although the entire network goes into overdrive during the holidays, the empty cupboards and bare shelves people face on Thanksgiving is a dilemma they’re confronted with year round.

The report released by the Food Bank found that in the last two years, ninety percent of food pantries and soup kitchens reported an increase in visitors. This growing demand has forced more than a quarter of these locations to increase operating hours to accommodate longer lines of people. But even hungry New Yorkers looking for a Thanksgiving meal on Thursday can’t count entirely on the kindness of the mostly volunteer-run soup kitchens. More than a third of the food pantries and soup kitchens surveyed had to turn people away over the last two Thanksgivings. They had run out of food. 

“We’ll keep serving until the last person is served,” says Swami Durga Das. “Unless we run out of food, which could eventually happen.”

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