Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Food Drives Won’t Fill the Void

During the holidays, the local news is full of stories of food drives and images of stacked canned goods collected in an effort to help feed hungry New Yorkers. Food drives may help bring attention to food shortages at emergency food programs and food banks, but they are an inefficient means of supplying these programs with food.

Government funding enables emergency food programs to purchase food for their clients at deeply discounted rates. The food purchasing power of these programs is sometimes as much as ten times that of an ordinary consumer, meaning that the 99 cents a well-intentioned food drive participant spends on a can of beans could buy ten cans of beans if the donor gave that money directly to a food pantry. Many food pantries also have trouble integrating donated food items into their current stock. Often, there is not a large enough volume of any one item to ensure that families are getting fair and equal shares of the food they need.

There are, however, many more effective ways to assist emergency food programs. Here are a few alternatives to consider:

  • Get involved in advocacy efforts to increase and streamline food stamp benefits, provide public school students with free meals, and increase state and federal funding for emergency food programs. By supporting NYCCAH, you can advance these advocacy efforts which work to improve food access for all New Yorkers.

  • Use your professional skills to contribute to an emergency food program as a long-term volunteer. Many emergency food programs are severely under-staffed and in need of accounting, web design or development help. Visit NYCCAH’s Volunteer Matching Center to find a professional volunteering opportunity near you.

  • Collect funds for your local soup kitchen or food pantry. If your organization is interested in developing a long-term relationship with an emergency food program, consider a funding drive rather than a food drive. Search NYCCAH’s Hunger Maps by keyword, borough or zip code to find an emergency food program near you.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Dear President-elect Obama: Yes, We Can End Hunger in the United States

On Tuesday, January 20, 2009, President-elect Obama will officially inherit a host of domestic and international problems – including the fact that over 36 million Americans live in households that are unable to afford enough food.

The on-going problem of hunger in the United States is in large part due to a lack of political will. In order to reduce domestic hunger and poverty, the government must both take immediate actions and also work to enact long-term solutions.

Joel Berg, the executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, sent President-elect Obama several memos which outline concrete and realistic strategies for the administration to work to end hunger. Recalling that President John F. Kennedy’s very first action as President was to sign an executive order implementing a pilot Food Stamps Program, Berg outlines immediate administrative actions that the new administration could take to make significant progress from the beginning.

In his campaign, Obama pledged to end child hunger by 2015 as a down payment on ending all domestic hunger. Berg provides several ideas for how Obama can make good on this promise, especially by supporting a strong economic stimulus bill as proposed by Representative James McGovern and many other members of Congress and by supporting a strong Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Bill.

In addition to proposing ways in which the Obama administration can better utilize AmeriCorps Members and Non-Profit groups, Berg explains how Obama’s administration can improve the Serve America Act (S. 3487), supported by Senators Kennedy and Hatch) to expand national service and volunteerism efforts.

Finally, Berg also suggests various communication strategies that will help the Obama/Biden administration fight hunger by decreasing stigma and increasing public support for and participation in federal programs.

By following Berg’s suggestions – articulated both in these memos and in his recent book All You Can Eat: How Hungry is America? – the Obama/Biden Administration can immediately work to reduce hunger and begin to implement the long-term policies and programs that are needed to end it.

Cranberry Outreach: What Can We Do?

As more and more people in our communities are unable to afford healthy food, many faith leaders ask: what can I do to help?

This holiday season, Faith Leaders for Food Justice visited over twenty-five churches in Harlem to deliver homemade cranberry sauce and to invite them to join Faith Leaders for Food Justice. We also delivered the information to over 150 other faith-based communities in Harlem. Faith leaders were given cards with the ideas for how their congregation could get involved.

We will be following up with written information and holding a reception in the early spring for faith communities who are interested in undertaking one or more of these projects.

This holiday season, here are 7 things faith communities can do to fight hunger and increase healthy food options in our communities:

  • Support supermarket creation by creating a task force in your faith community

  • Support or start a Community Supported Agriculture Project

  • Advocate for policies that will improve school meals, fund emergency food programs, workers’ rights, and work towards ending hunger

  • Create or support a community garden

  • Get involved in food stamps outreach

  • Support or start a local food co-op

  • Adopt a local food emergency program or become a long-term volunteer

Are you interested in joining Faith Leaders for Food Justice?

Please contact us by email at faithfoodjustice@gmail.com or by phone at (212) 825-0028, ext. 212 (Alexandra) to get involved!

Faith Leaders for Food Justice seeks to provide information and the resources to help faith communities in New York effectively help their communities and to promote change. We began our outreach in Harlem and are focusing our goals on improving access to healthy food for the Harlem community. In particular, our goals are to improve supermarket access, to increase participation in the food stamps program, to involve more faith-based communities in advocacy, and to increase the number of community supported agriculture and urban agriculture projects in Harlem.

Faith Leaders for Food Justice is an interfaith group that is working to help find innovative ways to engage the faith community in food justice issues. Convened by New York Faith and Justice, Alexandra Yannias (Coordinator of Interfaith Voices Against Hunger) coordinates the group which includes members from the following organizations and communities: Cathedral Community Cares, the Church of the Holy Trinity, Faith House Manhattan, Hazon, New York Faith and Justice, New York City Coalition Against Hunger, WE ACT for Environmental Justice, and the West Harlem Action Network Against Poverty (WHANAP).

Friday, December 19, 2008

Responding to the Obesity Tax: Shrinking Waistlines or Shrinking Wallets?

Consumers, medical professionals, and public health officials wasted no time reacting to the proposed “obesity tax” detailed in Governor Paterson’s 2009 Executive Budget. State officials claim that the 18% tax on non-diet sodas and fruit drinks with less than 70% juice would generate nearly $400 million a year in funds for health programs. The “obesity tax” could redefine the relationship between state health policy and consumer decision-making in potentially beneficial or harmful ways depending on who you ask.

Proponents of the tax claim that it could cut statewide obesity rates by 5%. Health professionals have cited the earlier cigarette tax as proof that hiking prices can result decreased consumption. Supporters claim that sugared beverages are devoid of health benefits and are therefore a good place to start when it comes to making consumers pay up for their indulgence. Said Elie Ward of The American Academy of Pediatrics: “soda and other sugar-sweetened drinks are the leading single contributor to obesity. Raising the price of this liquid candy will put children and teens on a path to a healthier diet."

New York Times Columnist Nicholas Kristof recently cited a 2005 study suggesting that every 10% increase on cigarette prices reduces overall smoking rates by 3% and teenage smoking rates by 7%. Health officials are expecting the tax to have a similarly strong effect on statewide rates of child and teen obesity, which have tripled in the past three decades.

Opponents, on the other hand, question if the proposed tax will be effective health policy. “Generally, taxing food doesn’t change long-term behaviors with respect to food choices,” said former president of the American Diatetic Association Connie B. Diekman. Some health experts have expressed concern that item-specific taxes will distract from comprehensive anti-obesity education.

Some food retailers like Javier Fuertes, the general manager of an East Harlem Fine Fare, believe the tax will disproportionately affect low-income New Yorkers. Though the budget also includes taxes that affect wealthy New Yorkers, including a tax on yachts and furs, the Governor continues to reject the “millionaire’s tax,” which would generate nearly ten times the revenue of the obesity tax.

Many consumers similarly doubt the rationale for the policy and posit that the tax is a money-making scheme rather than a serious attempt at behavior modification. Many New York City retailers further claim that soft drink would remain sure-fire products despite their increased cost. That’s good news for State coffers, but bad news if the tax is, as Paterson has stated, primarily aimed at improving New Yorkers’ health.

Tell us what you think about the obesity tax. Post your comments below and join the conversation!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Governor’s Proposed Budget Returns Some Vital Funding to Emergency Food Programs

Governor Paterson yesterday released the details of his $121 billion 2009 Executive Budget, which includes 4.4 million in increased funding for emergency food programs. Governor Paterson reduced emergency food spending by 22% over the past year leaving food pantries and soup kitchens across the City unable to meet the growing demand.

Still absent from Paterson’s proposal is the “millionaire’s tax,” which would generate over $5 billion in state funds over the next five years by charging wealthy New Yorkers a 3/4 of one percent surcharge above their current tax rate. The Governor has avoided such a levy, claiming that it would drive wealthy residents out of the state.

Emergency food program funding would instead be generated by the Governor’s health care savings package, which frees up $3.5 billion by focusing funds on primary care, rather than in-patient medical facilities and by decreasing Medicaid and Medicare reimbursements. Budget savings from the proposed health care package would also be used to streamline Family Health Plus applications and support obesity prevention programs.

Despite the allocation of necessary funds to food programs, the budget includes substantial cuts in human services and public education. The plan also relies upon a series of regressive taxes to boost state revenues, including a controversial 18% tax on non-diet sodas and a 5% on luxury goods over $20,000.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Advocates REAACT to Waiting Room Rule

The results of a recent Human Resources Adminstration (HRA) applicant satisfaction survey have reopened a longstanding debate about who should be allowed to interact with clients in benefits office waiting rooms. The survey, which was administered by Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum’s office, revealed widespread dissatisfaction with the Human Resources Administration (HRA): the city department that oversees citywide food stamp applications. HRA has criticized the report’s findings, claiming that the survey is being used to lend support an ongoing effort by food stamp advocates to conduct outreach from within HRA offices.

Advocates are currently allowed to enter food stamps offices with the express purpose of helping individual clients they have contacted before their appointment date. Prior to 1995, benefits advocates were allowed to distribute literature and offer assistance within HRA waiting rooms, but a 1995 executive order by then-Mayor Guiliani ended the practice. The order was upheld after a court decision stated that HRA offices were not “public space.” The HRA Commissioner was thus given the authority to restrict access to benefits offices, and has continued to do so since.

But, as the number of benefits applicants rises and complaints against HRA continue, Gotbaum and City Councilmembers Bill de Blasio and Eric Gioia are attempting to reinstate waiting room advocacy. The Ready Access to Assistance Act (REAACT) seeks to overturn the early court ruling and allow for advocates to offer assistance, including translation services, upon request at HRA offices. “These help desks work, and they work well,” says Gotbaum. “My bill authorizes agencies to make rules to implement help desks and if agencies have concerns about supervision of advocates, simple steps can be taken to address these concerns.

The act has gained the support of a veto-proof majority in City Council, but Speaker Christine Quinn has remained indefinite on whether she will support a hearing on the bill. Quinn has echoed the HRA’s complaint that the policy would add to the confusion already characteristic of food stamp application offices and could undermine the authority of HRA staff.

Advocates argue that the disagreement underscores a fundamental difference in view on the role of benefits offices, claiming that HRA continues to uphold the Guiliani view, prioritizing “slashing the roles” rather than helping clients get the food they need and the benefits to which they are entitled.

It remains to be seen whether REAACT can help bridge this difference. HRA staff and food stamp advocates have a long way to go when it comes to fostering a collaborative, rather than oppositional, relationship. In the interim, more clients need to be connected with the information necessary to help them get the benefits they need. Nowhere is this process more fraught with problems than within food stamp offices. Allowing advocates in benefits offices would prioritize the autonomy of clients over the autonomy of HRA: a welcome change to a system that otherwise leaves very little room for client choice.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Eyes Bigger than Your Stomach? That’ll Cost You.

Hayashi Ya Japanese restaurant on the Upper West Side has begun charging 3% above the $26.95 buffet cost for customers who don’t clean their plates.

Hayashi Ya’s new policy suggests that the American tradition of all-you-can-eat buffets and monster portions could face changes as consumers and food vendors acknowledge the rising cost of not only the food on their plates, but the food that they waste.

27% of all food distributed in America goes to waste: that’s one pound of food per person per day and nearly 30 million tons per year. As the number of Americans who can’t afford enough food continues to climb, such waste is getting harder and harder to justify.

Hayashi Ya’s manager sites a desire to curb waste as the primary reason for the new charge, but also acknowledges that food waste generates expenses for the restaurant, which can be eliminated by encouraging customer restraint.

Other restaurants have similarly begun to trim excessive portions. "One in six city residents can't afford enough food at all," said NYCCAH Executive Director Joel Berg. "We certainly don't need on the other side of the spectrum fancy restaurants offering ridiculous excess portions."

Part of the answer to these food inequities may include new emphasis on food conservation, which includes principles that low-income families know well: use what’s on hand, salvage the usable elements of food that would otherwise go to waste, and modify portions to suit your nutritional needs rather than restaurant standards that tend towards excess.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Hope for Policy Changes in the Midst of Food Crisis

“Last year we were doing okay,” said Larnise Smith, a Brooklyn resident who travels from food pantry to food pantry in order to find enough food for her large family. “It changed gradually.”

For many low-income New Yorkers, the gradual change has now reached a crisis level. Many families have now found that they are unable to afford enough food merely by cutting their costs and have been forced to rely on food pantries and soup kitchens to get by.

Higher demand means bare shelves for agencies like the Salt and Sea Mission in Coney Island. Like many agencies across the city, the Mission was forced to turn away many families in November, offering families scarves and hats so that they would not leave empty-handed. Salt and Sea Mission is not alone: 58% of soup kitchens and food pantries in Brooklyn reported a “great increase” in clients over the past year, and the numbers are expected to rise.

As soup kitchens and food pantries like Salt and Sea issue pleas for donations to cover the holiday season, low-income New Yorkers and food providers continue to be overwhelmed by the pervasiveness of the crisis. Says Coney Island food pantry customer Irina Ouchakova, “there’s nowhere to go. It’s like this everywhere.”

NYCCAH’s 2008 Hunger Survey confirms the observation, with emergency food programs in all five boroughs reporting significant increases in demand and diminished funding from government and other sources.

Still, hope remains that the crisis may spark new, bi-partisan efforts to end hunger once and for all. NYCCAH’s Hunger Survey serves as a tool for this kind of focused advocacy which, when coupled with President-elect Obama’s pledge to end child hunger in America by 2015, will bring us closer to ensuring that families across the City finally get the food they need.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

No Time to Wait: Ending the Toll of Hunger

12 million American children live in homes that can’t afford enough food. Food banks across the country are reporting record shortages. Hunger costs Americans over $90 billion a year in increased healthcare spending, decreased worker productivity and lagging school performance. We’re all paying for hunger and the time is now to demand change from the incoming Presidential administration.

In a policy paper addressed to President-elect Barack Obama, NYCCAH Executive Director Joel Berg and policy analyst Tom Freedman call on the President-elect to incorporate anti-hunger initiatives into effective anti-poverty and economic renewal policies. Berg and Freeman argue for the creation of universal in-classroom school breakfast programs; the strengthening and streamlining of benefits programs including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP-formerly known as the Food Stamps Program); and the raising and indexing the federal minimum wage. Such measures will serve as a necessary step to economic revitalization and “will improve the lives of the millions of American children who already live on the economic margins and are vulnerable to the devastating effects of a prolonged economic slump,” said Berg and Freedman.

For more information on NYCCAH’s proposed initiatives to end hunger in America, download the full policy proposal here. For a complete account of President-elect Obama’s anti-hunger agenda, download his proposal to end childhood hunger by 2015.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Senator Schumer Calls for Emergency Food Aid in Response to Rising Demand

Following the release of data from NYCCAH’s 2008 Hunger Survey indicating a rise in demand and a sharp drop in resources at city soup kitchens and food pantries, U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer announced a plan that aims to get more food to hungry New Yorkers. The plan would increase federal funding for emergency food by $50 million, raise Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP--formerly known as the Food Stamps Program) funds by 10%, and encourage corporate and individual food donations to struggling emergency food programs.

“During these difficult times, food banks and pantries are our cities first and sometimes last line of defense against hunger,” Schumer said. “For far too long, vital emergency food programs have been starved for funding and donations. This plan will be a shot in the arm for food banks and pantries by increasing needed federal aid, encouraging people everywhere to donate, and boosting food stamp support.”

The plan calls for increases to SNAP and The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) as part of a second economic stimulus package that Congress is set to debate this month. In order to combat imminent food shortages in the coming months, Schumer will push for extended tax breaks for those who donate food to emergency food programs. The tax incentives would “help ensure that a critical incentive for people to donate food during the holidays isn’t suddenly taken away, curbing donations even more.”

Senator Schumer hopes to gain wide bi-partisan support for the plan, as food programs and families across the nation have been hit hard by the economic crisis.

“We cannot let the spirit of giving fade as out economy tumbles,” said Schumer.

Record Number of City Agencies Running Out of Food

A sharp increase in demand at soup kitchens and food pantries across the City combined with drastic funding cuts led to widespread shortages at emergency food programs in the past year. 68.8% of agencies reported they did not have enough food to meet the demand of their clients in 2008—up from 59% in 2007.

NYCCAH’s 2008 Hunger Survey, entitled No Bailout for the Hungry: Funding Slashed to Emergency Food Providers as Hunger in NYC Continues to Soar, also showed a 20% rise in the number of meals served by soup kitchens and food pantries in the last year, with many agencies reporting an increase in the number of seniors, immigrants and families with children served. Despite the growing demand, 72.3% of agencies reported a drop in government funding in the past year.

“Funding has been dwindling for years but I’ve never seen it this bad,” said Christy Robb, Director of Community Outreach and Food Pantry at Hour Children in Long Island City. “In general to deal with higher demand, higher costs, and decreasing resources we have been steadily decreasing the amounts given and request that participants, except elderly and disabled, limit their participation to three times a month.”

Agencies across the city are looking to the new Presidential administration to fulfill its promise of expand funding for soup kitchens and food pantries and increasing the food buying power of low-income Americans. “The bad news is that we have more agencies than ever running out of food. The hunger situation which was truly awful in 2007 has now reached crisis proportions,” said NYCCAH Executive Director Joel Berg. “The good news is that the next President and Congress have a great opportunity to rapidly reverse these trends by strengthening the nutrition safety net and creating living wage jobs.”

Following the release of the 2008 data, legislators across the city and state reiterated the need to expand food stamp access by ending the City policy of finger-imaging food stamp applicants; to dedicate more funding for emergency food programs; and to provide New Yorkers with a living wage so that they will be able to purchase the food they need.

“New Yorkers in all five boroughs have felt the alarming rise in the cost of food in both their stomachs and wallets,” said Councilman Eric Gioia. “Eradicating hunger in New York City is a moral issue. The problem of hunger in New York City is a problem that all New Yorkers should care about- and one that we have the obligation to eliminate.”

To download a PDF of the full survey report, click here. For media coverage related to the 2008 Hunger Survey, visit NYCCAH’s media page.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Keeping the Green Going for City Food Pantries

A new partnership between NYCCAH and City Greenmarkets is ensuring that fresh bread and produce sold at the Carroll Gardens Greenmarket makes it to the tables of those who need it most. Surplus food from the Sunday Greenmarket will be donated to the Hanson Place Campaign Against Hunger, a client-choice food pantry in Fort Greene throughout the 2008 and 2009 market season.

Hanson Place serves over 135,000 meals a year and has seen demand rise amid an increasingly uncertain economy. Like many food pantries across the City, Hanson place has had trouble sourcing fresh produce to pantry clients. “This donation of fresh produce will help serve the children, seniors and families who rely on our food pantry,” said Hanson Place director Tamar Auber.

It’s a plan that both helps hungry New Yorkers and cuts down on waste, says Councilman Bill de Blasio. Said de Blasio, “Wholesome produce should not be a luxury item, and commonsense partnerships like this one can help to increase availability of such healthy foods for low-income New Yorkers.”

NYCCAH and Greenmarkets plan to reproduce the donation model at Greenmarkets and emergency food programs across the City.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Costco Says “No Deal” for Food Stamp Recipients

Costco may not seem like a exclusive club, but it remains inaccessible for the nearly 28 million Americans receiving food stamps who can not use their benefits at Costco stores. This illogical blot on the record of an otherwise socially-conscious company has been keenly felt by the residents of the Queensbridge, Ravenswood and Astoria housing projects in Queens, all of which are in walking distance of the Long Island City Costco. Representatives of the warehouse buying club claim that the $50 membership fee would prohibit food stamp recipients from shopping at the store anyway.

With the number of city supermarkets dropping by 1/3 in the past five years, warehouse stores—along with bodegas and discount stores—often function as an alternate source of food for low-income New Yorkers, who have been disproportionately affected by the supermarket exodus. Given the fact that the federal government not only reimburses retailers the full price of food stamp transactions and provides chain retailers with free equipment to accept such purchases, the choice not to accept food stamps is a “glaring omission,” said Queens city councilmember Eric N. Gioia. With national food stamp enrollment on the rise, refusing to accept food stamps is not only socially irresponsible, it’s also bad business.

The Long Island City Costco, which opened in 1996, benefited from a zoning loophole which allowed them to open in a residential area, but has relied on a customer base from across the five boroughs. For Long Island City residents, says Berg, “Costco is essentially placing a sign in their window that says ‘Your Business Not Wanted.’ ”

Monday, November 17, 2008

Full and Ready to Learn

It’s the most important meal of the day, and at public schools across the city, it’s finally available to everyone. Following years of advocacy from NYCCAH and other anti-hunger groups, the City is expanding a pilot program that will make breakfast available in the classroom for students at 299 schools over the next two years. Before the expansion, in-classroom breakfasts were available in only 50 schools.

Since 2003, the City has offered free breakfast to all public school students regardless of income, but participation rates have remained low. By bringing breakfast into the classroom, the city hopes to lessen the stigma associated with receiving free breakfasts and to cut down on tardiness among students who would otherwise be forced to eat breakfast before their first period class.

“Any program that feeds hungry children, improves education, reduces tardiness and absenteeism is clearly an overwhelming public good,” said NYCCAH Executive Director Joel Berg. Berg and other anti-hunger advocates will call for Congressional funding to make in-classroom breakfasts available nationwide.

For educators, in-classroom breakfasts act as vital aid in the teaching process: one that works better and costs no more than serving the meal in the cafeteria. “We think it’s a terrific — terrific — way to ensure that our children are getting proper nutrition in the morning,” said Kathleen Grimm, New York City deputy chancellor for finance and administration.

The message is clear to City students, whose satisfaction is the best arbiter of the program’s success. As members of a third-grade class in Queens finished their in-classroom breakfast, 8-year-old Carol Ossieli observed: “It makes me full and happy. I’m ready to study and learn.”

Social Services Slashed Again Under Paterson’s Proposed Cuts

On November 13, Governor Paterson unveiled a proposal that would enact sweeping state budget cuts, including cuts in human services. Paterson has warned that the plan “represents a series of difficult choices across virtually every area of State spending.” Although it is not yet clear how much funding for emergency food programs will be cut from the most recent proposal, any reduction in funding will be deeply felt by these programs because the state government has slashed the Hunger Prevention Nutrition Assistance Program (the HPNAP) by 22% since April 2008.

The plans most drastic cuts will hit education and health care. School aid would be decreased by $836 million and Medicaid reimbursements to hospitals would also be substantially reduced.

The plan would allegedly generate $5.2 billion in state funds over the next two years, eliminating the state’s 2008 deficit and securing future payment on the 2009 deficit. Governor Paterson has declined to cut into the City’s $1.2 billion “rainy day fund” or to raise taxes in order to raise state revenues.

“The most effective way to make the state stronger through this crisis and minimize the harm to the economy and vulnerable population is using every means at the state’s disposal, such as excess reserve funds and progressive revenue enhancements,” added James Parrot, Deputy Director & Chief Economist at the Fiscal Policy Institute.

Non-profit groups rallied against the proposed cuts at government office buildings across the state. “We went through this in the 70’s, it was the worst period in New York’s recent history, and it lasted over two decades,” said Ed Ott, Executive Director at the New York City Central Labor Council, of the proposed plan. “It is the job of the government to go and find the money and keep essential services. We don’t want another 25 bad years in this city. If they cut us out, we won’t climb out easily.”

Friday, November 14, 2008

Reusable Pantry Bags May Help EFPs Circumvent Bloomberg’s Proposed “Bag Tax”

In an effort to raise city revenue and cut down on waste, Mayor Bloomberg recently unveiled a proposal that would charge shoppers a tax of 6 cents for every plastic bag they receive at the register. The proposal follows on the heals of a July initiative that required grocery stores to accept used plastic bags for recycling and, if passed, would allegedly generate a revenue of $16 million a year.

However, some advocates are concerned that Bloomberg’s proposal to charge shoppers for each bag they use might unfairly burden low-income New Yorkers who are already overburdened by skyrocketing food prices. It also remains unclear whether emergency food programs will be asked to pay the same tax as grocery stores and bodegas.

Whether or not food pantries are eventually subject to the bag tax, the proposal brings attention to the high cost of plastic bags for many food programs. Though many city pantries rely in part on bag donations from pantry customers, almost all supplement these donations with purchased plastic bags. The average New York City food pantry distributes over 300 bags each month, which leaves nearly 2 million bags per year added to City waste or left to litter neighborhood streets. As demand at City pantries continues to rise, both the economic and environment costs of disposable bags are taking an even greater toll on pantries and their surrounding neighborhoods.

This year, through a 2008 grant from the Citizen’s Committee for New York City a NYCCAH-sponsored network of food pantries in Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant were able to offer reusable bags to their regular customers. The reusable bags met with great approval from pantry customers as well as pantry staff, who were able to cut down on their plastic bag expenses. “It’s ridiculous, the amount of waste created by plastic bags,” said Eric Shoenfeld, a customer Community Development Support Corporation’s food pantry. “It’s important that we keep in mind the environment and work towards a greener planet.”

The pilot project may serve as an alternate model for food pantries hit by plastic bag taxes.

For more information on reusable pantry bags see the most recent issue of Feed the Solution, NYCCAH’s newsletter for emergency food programs, or visit the website of the Brooklyn Alliance for Community Services.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Where’s the Fraud?

Each election year, conservative politicians drag out a familiar refrain: low-income Americans, when granted access to basic rights like voting and receiving food stamp benefits, will inevitably exploit these rights and defraud government agencies en masse.

Data has repeatedly shown not only that these claims are false, but that conservative lawmakers have poured millions of dollars into fighting a battle with an all but non-existent enemy. “The conservative establishment has gone to great lengths to make it difficult for low-income Americans to register and cast votes,” says NYCCAH Executive Director Joel Berg in a recent Huffington Post editorial. “That is why the miniscule number of people who illegally vote is dwarfed by the tens of millions of eligible people prevented or discouraged from voting.”

It’s a scenario nearly identical to the food stamp (recently renamed SNAP) benefits application process here in New York City. Mayor Bloomberg continues to enforce the policy of finger-imaging all City food stamp recipients, despite the USDA’s statement that finger imaging does far more to detract eligible applicants from applying for food stamps than to weed out the miniscule number of fraudulent applications. In 2006, the City detected only 31 cases of food stamp fraud through finger-imaging, while, according to data from the Urban Institute, nearly 21,500 eligible New Yorkers were deterred from applying to food stamps by the finger-imaging policy. “There are a lot of bad government policies out there, but few rise to the level of sheer stupidity as this one does,” says Berg.

Ignore for a moment the fact that rich Americans who accept government funds are not made to submit to finger imaging. Or that over one in five New York City children continue to live in homes that can’t afford enough food. Economic data alone attests to the wastefulness of these policies. In 2006, New York City spent $800,000 on finger-imaging. That’s $25,806 on each case of detected fraud.

For families deterred from receiving even the minimum food stamp benefit, it’s clear where the real hoax lies.

Monday, November 10, 2008

A Pledge to Make History, Again

At the end of an historic election season, Americans are calling upon President-elect Obama to again make history by ending hunger in America once and for all. The Obama-Biden anti-hunger plan combines measures that strengthen federal nutrition assistance programs and increase the long-term food purchasing power of low-income Americans by raising the minimum wage and providing affordable health insurance to all Americans.

President-elect Obama would utilize funds from his proposed $25 billion State Growth Fund to prevent further state funding cuts to nutrition programs, whose ability of local agencies to adequately feed food-insecure families has been recently jeopardized in the name of . In the past year alone, New York State has cut nutrition funding by 22%, even as individual soup kitchens and food pantries face the crisis of sharply increasing demand. The Fund would help safeguard state governments against negative economic pressure, while alleviating some of the burden of increased taxation otherwise needed to cover state budget costs.

The President-elect has also pledged to end child hunger in America by 2015 through a series of initiatives, including: offering free school meals to all children living in homes that receive Food Stamp/Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, expanding the federal Summer Meals program and increasing support for community food banks.

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman is among the many Americans who have urged President-elect Obama to not only stick to the optimism of his campaign platform, but to tend towards overestimating the need of the American people in the interest of creating long-term economic stability. Says Krugman: “My advice to the Obama people is to figure out how much help they think the economy needs, then add 50 percent. It’s much better, in a depressed economy, to err on the side of too much stimulus than on the side of too little.” For food insecure Americans, it is this kind of concrete commitment that will offer real hope for a future free from the specter of hunger.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Where There’s a (Political) Will, There’s a Way

Hunger is taking a serious toll on the American people: Hunger causes childhood illnesses, developmental disabilities, and other health problems. Taxpayers pay $90 billion a year as a result of the continuing problem of hunger. Despite the severity of the hunger crisis, however, both presidential candidates largely ignored the issue of hunger in their campaigns. Massachusetts Representative Jim McGovern and 2008 World Food Prize laureate and former Senator George McGovern in a recent Boston Herald editorial said that the next administration should lead a strong national effort to solve the problem of hunger in America once and for all.

If the next President takes the lead in making real policy changes, Senator McGovern, aged 86, and Representative McGovern, aged 48, both believe that they may yet see an end to hunger in their lifetimes. In particular, they call upon the next President to allocate the necessary funds to not only end domestic hunger but also to work towards ending hunger around the world by integrating anti-hunger initiatives into foreign policy. They propose that the next administration appoint a federal hunger czar who will oversee a single, comprehensive plan to end hunger that will be supported by every sector of government. The ultimate goal of such a plan, they argue is “to increase the independence, purchasing power and food security of every human being.”

Considering the extent of hunger at home and abroad, they argue that legislators must approach the problem of hunger with the same bipartisanship and sense of immediacy as they did the recent financial bailout. “Hunger is a political condition. We have everything we need – including enough food – to end hunger in the United States and around the world. However, we lack the political will to make ending it a priority,” said Senator McGovern and Representative McGovern.

Both Senator McGovern and Representative McGovern have worked extensively on both domestic and international hunger policy. Senator McGovern’s work with the McGovern-Dole international school feeding program has sparked a global campaign to increase school feeding in order to enhance the health and education of children, especially young girls. As co-chair of the Congressional Hunger Center, Representative McGovern has overseen bi-partisan efforts to develop domestic and international hunger policy.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Mayor Bloomberg Expands In-Classroom Breakfasts in Effort to Combat Economic Insecurity

On October 30, Mayor Bloomberg announced 18 new initiatives to help New Yorkers endure economic hard times. New measures include expanding the in-classroom free breakfast program, allocating $1.3 million in funds for frozen vegetables at food pantries and extending further assistance to seniors applying for food stamps.

The in-classroom breakfast program acts as a direct defense against child hunger by making free breakfasts available to students in their first period classrooms. In traditional school breakfast programs, students receiving free meals are forced to eat in a separate room, thus increasing the stigma associated with receiving free meals. The new initiative will expand the in-classroom breakfast program to 300 more schools in addition to the 50 City schools currently serving in-classroom breakfasts. “This is a major advance that will be a model for the whole country. We know breakfast improves educational performance so in-classroom breakfasts are both good hunger and good education policy” said NYCCAH Executive Joel Berg.

These anti-hunger initiatives were accompanied by the Bloomberg administration’s promise of new jobs in the construction and “green” sectors as well as job placement assistance for those recently laid off from financial service jobs. The administration will also raise funds for the Center for NYC Neighborhoods, which intervenes on behalf of New Yorkers facing foreclosure, and assists them in regaining financial stability.

Mayor Bloomberg emphasized the importance of existing city agencies in carrying out the proposed initiatives, stating that the creation of new spending programs would be irresponsible in the midst of economic downturn. “City agencies can do what these initiatives accomplish—make swift and focused efforts to help New Yorkers help themselves,” said Bloomberg.

Food Stamps Offer an Effective Economic Boost, Say Economists

As Congress deliberates the future of a second economic stimulus package, economists have affirmed that food stamp increases offer a far greater sustained payoff for the economy as a whole than individual tax rebates. Recent data from Moody’s Economy shows that each dollar spent on food stamps boosts gross domestic product by $1.73, while the return on tax rebates is only $1.26 on the dollar. Other methods for improving the economic security of low- and middle-income Americans, including extending unemployment insurance, result in similarly high rates of return, while corporate tax cuts result in a net loss of 70 cents on the dollar.

The precipitous drop in retail sales in September made it clear that the first economic stimulus package earlier this year – which focused on individual tax rebates – was unable to effectively bolster the economy. As the economy continues to decline, lawmakers are looking for new means to increase low-income Americans’ spending power and – especially considering economists’ support – increasing the food stamps allotment has emerged as an important component of a possible second economic stimulus.

“Economists are quite in agreement that food stamps, unemployment insurance, and adjusting the paychecks of the bottom half of American workers would have a far greater effect,” said Oregon Representative Earl Blumenauer in a recent interview with Dow Jones.

Call your Senator today to encourage them to support increasing food stamps benefits as a part of the second economic stimulus package.

How do I contact my Congressional representatives?

- Use 1-800-473-6711* to call your Members of Congress.

- Call the Capitol Hill switchboard at: 202-224-3121 or 202-225-3121.

- Library of Congress website: http://thomas.loc.gov

Monday, October 27, 2008

Win in Wage Violation Case Enforces Need for Better Pay

A federal judge vindicated 36 delivery workers at two Saigon Grill Restaurants, who were paid less than $2 an hour and fined up to $200 for infractions as minor as letting a restaurant door slam. The workers were awarded a cumulative $4.6 million in back pay and damages, with individual workers receiving up to $328,000.

“It was worth the fight,” said deliveryman Yu Guan Ke, “because we were treated so badly for so long.” He plans to use the money to buy health insurance for himself and his family.

The verdict underscores widespread inequity in the food service industry, which mirrors the wider economic inequity that causes food insecurity. The case served as a warning for employers who refuse to comply with federal and state minimum wage laws. “Many restaurants have already started to pay their deliverymen much better,” said Josephine Lee, an organizer for Justice Will be Served.

Though touted as a victory for low-income, paying food service employees even the state minimum wage of $7.15 an hour will likely not be enough to ensure the food security of the workers and their families. Until the creation of a federal living wage, many food service workers who serve New Yorkers will continue to be unable to adequately feed themselves.

Client-Choice Model Lessens Stigma, Increases Options for Pantry Customers

For New Yorkers who cannot afford enough food, being forced to rely on food pantries often means structuring their meals around the contents of a pre-packaged pantry bag, rather than on food that healthy and culturally appropriate. The pre-packaged pantry model takes away the customer’s ability to choose and can result in wasted food if customers do not use the contents of the bag, which often includes items as desirable as pie filling or canned liver.

Now, a relatively new model food pantry model is returning some of that power of choice to customers of several pantries across the city. Client choice or “supermarket-style” pantries allow customers to self select items as they would in a grocery store, ensuring that clients retain the dignity of choice, while eliminating food waste by encouraging customers to take those items which their families can use.

The client-choice model was first introduced in 1993 at the West Side Campaign Against Hunger here in New York City. Executive Director Doreen Wohl created the model in order to better serve customers by validating their individual needs. Particularly for customers with diabetes or other diet restrictions, client-choice can mean the difference between taking home a bag of food that will exacerbate their condition, or a selection of items that will help them improve and maintain their health. Client choice also offers a far more culturally sensitive method of food distribution, reinstating the customer’s ability to select the food they know how to prepare.

A fundamental restructuring of the relationship between customers and pantries lies at the core of the client choice mode, which directly challenges the idea that clients should merely accept what they are given. “It’s about trust,” says Wohl. “We trust in the customer and the knowledge they bring to us about their diets, their illness and their family background.”

CAMBA’s Beyond Hunger Emergency Food Pantry is the latest City pantry to convert to client choice after completing the transition this summer. “It’s a more empowering model of helping people get through a food emergency,” says Janet Miller, CAMBA’s director of Food Programs. Client choice continues to gain support at pantries across the country, especially as resources wear thin and the threat of waste becomes even more detrimental to daily operations.

For more information about client choice pantries visit the Food Program page at the West Side Campaign Against Hunger.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Voters More Likely to Choose a Candidate Who Will Fight Hunger

More Americans are worried about their ability to buy food in the future, as rising food prices and a failing economy have driven up expenses for many low- and middle-income families.

A recent report from the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) shows that as many as 57% of Americans worry about being able to afford enough food, up from 27% just a year ago. The report further suggests that this concern is affecting voting behavior, with 60% of voters stating that they would be more likely to vote for a presidential candidate who is committed to fighting hunger.

"This is an issue that candidates have not focused on, but one that needs to be part of the political debate for president," said FRAC president Jim Weill. "Voters deserve to hear exactly where candidates stand and their plans to address the problem."

An overwhelming majority–94%–of respondents noted the importance of continuing government funding for nutrition programs like food stamps and subsidized school meals.

Are you concerned about food insecurity amid rising economic inequality? Join the movement to end child hunger. Sign the Interfaith Voices Against Hunger/Feed the Solution petition to end child hunger in the United States by 2014. With your help, we can insure that children don’t have to know what it’s like to be hungry. For more information about this initiative visit the NYCCAH website or contact Ali Yannias at (212) 825-0028, ext. 212.

Friday, October 17, 2008

For Millions, No End in Sight for Food Stamp Challenge

In honor of Hunger Action Month, government officials, hunger advocates and families across the country spent a week living on a food budget of $25 per person per week as part of a state- or locally-sponsored Food Stamp Challenge. How much does $25 a week buy? Not much, participants quickly realized.

For families used to spending $200 a week on groceries, cutting their food budget in half to participate in the Challenge meant they had to buy different kinds of foods than they were used to eating. Many found that budgetary constraints forced them to choose filling foods rather than nutritious ones. "Our diet was a lot more starchy than it normally is and I think people have to eat a lot of starches and poor-quality proteins and probably not get enough fruits and vegetables," said Valerie Levanos, a Maryland mother of two taking part in the challenge. "I think it would be really hard to eat a healthy diet on food stamps. It would be impossible, I think."

When reporting on their week-long experience, government officials and bloggers noted their inability to fully modify their spending habits. After realizing that she no longer had access to food on the go, Illinois State Representative Kathy Ryg reported, “I could spend an entire $25 on Starbucks some weeks and [during the challenge] I didn't even buy coffee to make at home because I couldn't afford it.”

Said Flint, Michigan columnist Andrew Heller of his Challenge experience, “I have an advantage a lot of struggling folks in Michigan don't. I can cheat.”

Though the Food Stamp Challenge may be an exercise in empathy, the “challenge” for the 28 million Americans currently receiving food stamps will not end until the government allocates sufficient funding to the food stamp program and enacts living wage policies that will help families make enough money to sufficiently feed their families. Following the Food Stamp Challenge, participants’ memories of temporary hunger will mean little if the experience is not translated into advocacy for a living wage, job creation, and child nutrition programs like universal school breakfasts.

In the interim, USDA has released guidelines for families attempting to maintain a healthier diet on limited resources. Unfortunately, the USDA’s suggestions do not provide a way for people to gain access to fresh fruits and vegetables: The suggestions include looking for bargains on old bread and buying ultra-pasteurized milk to avoid spoiling.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

35.5 Million Americans Are Not Suffering from “Overnutrition”

In “Farmer in Chief,” published in the New York Times on October 12th, Michael Pollan proposed a new food agenda (the “sun-food agenda”) to “wean the American food system off its heavy 20th-century diet of fossil fuel and put it back on a diet of contemporary sunshine.” Pollan characterizes hunger in the United States as a problem of “overnutrition” and urges the President Elect to support the creation of a federal definition of “food” which “must contain a certain minimum ratio of micronutrients per calorie of energy.”

Pollan’s proposal incorrectly explains the underlying causes of hunger in the United States and overlooks the 35.5 million Americans living in homes that are unable to afford enough food and 25 million forced to use food pantries and soup kitchens . In reality, the nation’s rising obesity is directly tied to the inability of low-income Americans to physically obtain and economically afford less fattening, more nutritious foods.

In addition to glossing over the real problem of hunger, Pollan’s suggestion that the federal government start preventing low-income families from using food stamp benefits to purchase what he deems to be junk food is also class biased and unrealistic. Who is he to decide that low-income American families could never again enjoy guilty pleasures like Coke? Who is to decide what qualifies as junk food?

Pollan also argues that creating a federal definition of “food” would “improve the quality of school lunch and discourage sales of unhealthful products.” However, the WIC and School Lunch Programs already value nutritional content over raw calorie counts. For example, under federal law, school lunches must be served in accordance with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, ensuring that less than 10 percent of calories come from saturated fat and requiring that each lunch provides at least one-third of the recommended levels of Vitamin A, Vitamin C, iron, and calcium.

In the end, low-income Americans cannot access healthy food that is neither physically available nor economically affordable. The answer is not, as Pollan suggests, to reduce the already meager choices available to low-income Americans by creating a federal definition of food. Rather, hunger in America – which affects 35.5 million Americans – will only end when the government ensures that all Americans have wages high enough and a government safety net robust enough to give them the real-life ability to afford more nutritious foods.

Friday, October 10, 2008

A Dollar for Dinner: Discount Stores Court Shoppers with Packaged Food

While many retailers are feeling the strain of a tumbling economy, more customers are turning to discount and dollar stores for an affordable way to feed their families, often relying on heavily-processed food. Even before the economic crisis, dollar and discount stores have functioned as grocery stores for low-income populations, but as food prices climb, discount retails like Family Dollar have dedicated more floor space to food items in an effort to attract middle-income bargain-conscious customers.

Though the food is affordable, discount store food offerings pose potential health risks, as many items are high in sodium, sugar and preservatives.

The rise in dollar store sales represents a current trend in food shopping that has turned many city shoppers away from the bodegas that have traditionally served low-income neighborhoods. Bodegas have recently been the target of city agencies who have recently offered incentives to bodegas who supply fresh produce and low-fat milk as healthier options to neighborhood residents. As independent, often family-run businesses, bodegas have suffered from rising rent and product costs, which have contributed to falling sales in the past nine months, according to the Bodega Association of the United States.

Though bodegas have not traditionally been outlets for well-rounded food choices, the imminent closure of many of these struggling stores threatens to further limit access to food—any food—among low-income city residents. Meanwhile, independent discount stores and a limited number of Family Dollar stores have begun accepting food stamps, thus filling, for many low-income families, the ever-widening gap left by closing grocery stores.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Act Now to End Child Hunger in the United States

Recent funding cuts and economic instability mean that more New York City children are living with the continual threat of hunger and often eating smaller meals or less healthy food.

From 2003 to 2007, the number of New York City households with children that had trouble affording enough food grew by 41%, according to a recent study published by the Food Bank for New York City. The study found that, in 2007, 45% of all City families with children were not always able to afford enough food.

Government nutrition programs can combat child hunger, but many of these programs receive insufficient funding and are further struggling to provide food for families after funding cuts at the city, state and national level.

The Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act, which will be considered by the next Administration and Congress, gives the nation the opportunity to end child hunger once and for all. The legislation includes future funding for the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs, the Summer Food Services Program (SFSP), the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) and the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP).

Please take the following two actions to support the changes necessary to expand and modernize the federal child nutrition safety net.

1. Take immediate action! October 15th (Wednesday) is the deadline to send USDA comments on reauthorization. It is critical that you and/or your organization respond. Comments may be sent by mail, fax or electronically – please see the following link: http://org2.democracyinaction.org/o/5118/t/1472/campaign.jsp?campaign_KEY=548

2. Join the movement! Interfaith Voices Against Hunger (IVAH)/Feed the Solution is currently collecting signatures for a petition to the next President of the United States and NY State Senators. Please review the petition at the following link: http://citizenspeak.org/node/1356 We believe that the bill should:

  1. Set a goal of cutting food insecurity among U.S. children in half by 2012 and ending it by 2014.

  1. Provide the funding and the guidance necessary to enable most elementary and secondary school in American to provide every student with free school breakfasts (regardless of their family income) in the first class period.

  1. Provide the funding to enable every school in America to provide free lunches to all their students, regardless of family income. (By making school meals universal in this way, the country can decease government funding on paperwork now used to make income eligibility determinations and instead use that money improve the nutrition of children.)

  1. Increase reimbursements to school districts that provide healthier foods, particularly for districts buying from small local farmers.

  1. Make the Women Infants and Children (WIC) nutritional assistance program an entitlement available to any low-income parent or child who needs it and fund nutritional improvements in the WIC package.

  1. Increase reimbursements for both government and non-profit agencies that sponsor after-school and summer meals for children.

Call Alexandra Yannias at (212) 825-0028, ext. 212 with any questions or for help organizing an advocacy event.