“Fourteen years ago I did an event where I found the chronologically furthest day away from Thanksgiving in the year,” Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America and a Brooklynite, told the Village Voice on Tuesday. “It was a day in June. I did an event called ‘The Other 364 Days,’ and I had a [picture of a] turkey with a slash through it. And I think very little if any media showed up.”
At age 53, the longtime anti-hunger advocate and Clinton administration Department of Agriculture vet is trying a different approach, crisscrossing the city on foot (five food pantries, five days) in the week leading up to Thanksgiving. He’s trying to make the point that hunger is a bigger story than “ShopRite Donates 3,000 Turkeys to Families in Need.”
Berg stopped Tuesday afternoon at Bed-Stuy Campaign Against Hunger, a cinderblock food pantry on Fulton Street near the Ralph Avenue A/C subway station. A line snaked down the block shortly after 1 p.m. as families stacked their carts with frozen turkeys, bunches of greens, and canned goods.
The number of New York State residents who can’t afford to feed themselves has fallen 12 percent over the last six years, according to Hunger Free America’s newly released biannual hunger report. That’s thanks in part to a general upswing in the economy. Governor Andrew Cuomo’s recent move to increase the minimum wage is another bright spot. But hunger rates are still higher than they were before the recession. Citywide, HFA found, nearly 1.2 million people are “food insecure,” or unable to consistently afford healthy meals. That’s roughly 14 percent of the city’s population, including one in every ten working adults.
The result has been an ongoing shortage of food at emergency food suppliers. In an accompanying HFA survey of hundreds of New York City food pantries and soup kitchens, more than a third reported that they had to turn people away this year because they couldn’t meet demand. To Berg and other advocates, the situation is unacceptable, and can’t be fixed with holiday season philanthropy.
“Many upper-middle-class white elites, who are liberal on everything else like climate change, when it comes to hunger all they know is the charity frame,” Berg said. This belief, he said, is that “charity is more efficient than government. That it makes you feel better than government, and if everyone pitches in we can just solve the problem and feel good about ourselves.”
In reality, said Berg, “there’s a fundamental, systematic, structural problem that needs to be fixed. We need more jobs, higher wages, and a more adequate safety net,” and year-round momentum on these issues. Especially this year, because “what Washington is proposing is the exact opposite of what we need.”
President Donald Trump’s preliminary 2018 budget calls for $193.3 billion in cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — formerly known as food stamps — over ten years, a more than 25 percent reduction from current levels, exceeding even Reagan-era safety-net slashings. Congress’s more likely move would be less staggering: $10 billion in cuts to agriculture programs over ten years, primarily hitting SNAP.
As of this August, New Yorkers received roughly $3.95 billion in SNAP benefits from Washington, according to the state. Local contributions are comparatively puny — in August, Governor Cuomo announced $36.5 million in state funding for food banks and pantries. A spokesperson for the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, which administers SNAP, called the proposed federal cuts “outrageous salvos” in a statement to the Voice.
There are ways the Cuomo administration could help alleviate hunger, according to Berg. “The state could spend more,” he said. “It could further raise the minimum wage. It could not exempt tipped workers from the minimum wage increases. The governor could scrap his revenue cap and spend more money on poor people.” Still, he noted, none of that would make a dent in the looming Trump SNAP cutbacks, as well as proposed federal tax hikes on the working class: “The federal government dwarfs everything else.”
Soup kitchens and food pantries are also among the first to see the impact of unforeseen disasters. In Bed-Stuy, Campaign Against Hunger founder Dr. Melony Samuels said she’s seen an influx of Puerto Ricans lining up for food since Hurricane Maria. “Everyone we asked, they were displaced,” she said. “They came over trying to find food. Some are in shelters, some are with families.”
Bed-Stuy resident Joan Hoyt, 66, comes to the Campaign Against Hunger food pantry once a month for a big shop, and weekly for vegetables. “The little we get [from the government] they’re taking back from us, so we have no other choice but to come,” she said.
Susan Sing, a mother of two, stood behind Hoyt in line wearing a heavy jacket over her nursing uniform. “I work two jobs,” she said. “I work at the airport, and as a home attendant, too. I have two bills in my bag to pay. I need it.”
Each fall, the USDA releases a Household Food Security report showing trends for the previous year, which Berg mines for data for his own reports. Nationally, 41 million people can’t afford enough food — 5 million more than 2007, and on par with 2015. That’s about 12 percent of all American households. Regionally, the average is highest in the South: 13.5 percent. Despite Trump’s “inner city” rhetoric, 15 percent of rural Americans are food insecure, compared to 14.2 percent of city residents. Yet Berg worries the Trump news cycle has sucked up all the oxygen.
“Most years the only people who cover the USDA report are the AP and NPR,” he said. “This year they didn’t even cover it.”
Meanwhile, Samuels, of the Bed-Stuy Campaign Against Hunger, is already worried about January. “Right now we are able to hold our ground,” she said. “But if something doesn’t happen we are at risk — of not only turning people away, but also cutting back on our programs.”
On Tuesday, Samuels oversaw 35 volunteers. If past years are an indicator, that number will soon dwindle. “Too many of New Yorkers believe that hunger is only November and December,” she said. “That’s a sad thing.”