Thursday, July 31, 2008

Queens Families Left Out of Greenmarket Initiatives

For many Queens families, the existence of neighborhood greenmarkets has done little to increase their access to fresh produce.

The greenmarkets in Jackson Heights and Astoria are the only two Queens markets currently accepting food stamps. In addition, the borough has yet to be included in the City's Health Bucks program, which offers $2 greenmarket vouchers to food stamp customers for every $5 spent at a farmers’ market. The Health Bucks program was recently extended to residents of the Bronx, Harlem, and Brooklyn after funding for the program was doubled.

Many neighborhoods in Queens have long been identified as food deserts. However, public perception of the borough may contribute to the unequal service distribution between Queens and other boroughs. "People have the stereotype in their minds about the kind of neighborhoods that this is a problem in, and there's a stereotype of Queens [as] just a middle-class borough," said NYCCAH Executive Director Joel Berg. "A lot of people are struggling in Queens and falling out of the middle class, and a lot of immigrants are coming in who are poor.”

Berg joined Margaret Hoffman of the Council on the Environment in New York City in calling for increased food stamp and Health Bucks program coverage in Queens.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Representative Velázquez Calls for Extended Food Stamp Coverage as Job Market Wanes

For New Yorkers seeking employment, food stamps can offer a financial lifeline during the job-seeking process. A new proposal would extend the time period in which job seekers can receive benefits, as food prices continue to rise and the job market remains weak.

On July 29, Representative Nydia Velázquez of New York’s 12th District introduced the Food Security Act of 2008, which would make food stamp benefits available to unemployed Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents (ABAWDs) for a full twelve months. Current law limits unemployed ABAWDs to three months of food stamp benefits for every 36 month period in which they remain unemployed. Velázquez’s measure comes on the heels of a dismal season for job seekers, with the unemployment rate in May spiking to the highest monthly rate in 20 years. In 2007, 1.6 million City residents stated that they would be unable to afford necessary food items after losing their household income. “When New Yorkers find their resources stretched thin, the food stamp program puts meals on millions of tables,” said Velázquez. “Extending the program would offer fast relief for those struggling to make ends meet.”

Velázquez was joined in calling for the measure by NYCCAH Executive Director Joel Berg and representatives of the Food Bank for New York City, the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance and the Department of Labor.

Monday, July 28, 2008

More College Students Using Food Pantries

According to reports from college campuses, more students are turning to college-run food pantries to subsidize their nutrition needs and students who already receive food stamps are vocalizing their need for more assistance. Despite specific eligibility requirements for student food stamp applicants, many college students may still qualify for food stamps, especially otherwise-eligible working students, students with children and those already receiving other government benefits.

Former Benedict College student, Terry Capleton applied for food stamps while in college and subsequently founded a Facebook group for college students who receive food stamp benefits. The group’s membership has grown as food pantries near college campuses have reported increased demand from student populations. Students cite loss of parental support and changes in meal plan status as reasons for seeking out food assistance. "There is a stereotype that well, if they're in college, they can afford to eat," said Larry Brickner-Wood, director of a food pantry at New Hampshire University. "But there are some students who have hardly any disposable income, and because of that, the food budget suffers. They either eat really badly, or they just don't eat enough." Low-income and non-traditional aged students have suffered more as a result of rising food costs, but Brickner-Wood describes some college students seeking food assistance as “typical, traditional students.”

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Senate Hearing Urges Action to Prevent Childhood Obesity

25 million American children are obese or at risk of becoming obese, according to data presented at the Senate Hearing on Childhood Obesity on July 16. The Senate heard testimony from medical professionals and policymakers, who emphasized the strong connection between poverty and childhood obesity, while stressing the widespread consequences of inaction in response to what Senator Chris Dodd called a “medical emergency.”

Jeff Levi, Ph.D, Executive Director of Trust for America’s Health offered testimony based on National Survey on Children’s Health reports that children of more affluent households are less likely to be overweight or obese. To illustrate this in concrete terms, in 2003, 22.4% of children below 100% of the poverty threshold were overweight, while only 9.1 percent of children at 400% of the poverty threshold were overweight.

A major reason for the disproportionate rates of obesity is access to affordable and nutritious food. Bruce Lesley, President of First Focus, a child advocacy group cited a Food Trust report showing that “people who live in lower-income areas without access to supermarkets appear to suffer from diet-related deaths at a higher rate than that experienced by the population as a whole.”

Obesity is a health issue with wide-ranging effects on children’s health and well-being. Childhood obesity is associated with depression, very early diagnoses of type 2 diabetes, low school performance, and a low quality of life, as reported in medical testimony by Dr. Francine Kaufman former National President of the American Diabetes Association, and Dr. Margaret Grey, Dean of the Yale School of Nursing. Annual hospital costs associated with obese children and youth have more than tripled since the 1980s, with obesity-related medical costs expected to rise as the current generation ages.

The lack of emphasis on prevention has led to a snowballing crisis which demands immediate reform. Levi argued that the source of the problem is largely environmental and also the result of poor policy choices. For example, school reform initiatives in recent years, namely No Child Left Behind, have effectively excised physical education funding and nutrition requirements from many school curricula and food programs and have left children unequipped to make healthy choices.

However, while immediate action is necessary, witnesses also emphasized that it would take wide-ranging and comprehensive solutions in order to counteract these problems. All testifying witnesses urged that government must acknowledge the profound effect rising childhood obesity rates will have on all levels of public life.

Kaufman illustrated the scope of childhood obesity problem when recounting her struggle to treat a 13-year-patient diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. Said Kaufman, “for my patient to do well, the world in which she lived would have to change. Her neighborhood, her school, the healthcare system that focuses more on treatment than prevention- our country- would have to transform so that it promotes and supports healthy lifestyle habits and make the healthy choices the easy choices- the accessible and affordable choices.”

Lesley called on Congress to increase physical activity requirements in schools, support new obesity prevention initiatives, and improve medical care and nutrition programs for all children, which includes extending State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) funds to cover obesity-related expenses. He further urged Congress to support measures that would insure the safety of children within their neighborhoods and near their schools, making it safer for children to increase their physical activity.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Soup Kitchen and Food Pantry Use Increases Sharply, as City Welfare Rolls Decline

In March and April, City-supported food pantries served 1.39 million meals, marking a 9.3% increase compared to the 1.27 million meals served during the same time period in 2007, according to the New York City Department of Social Services. Soup kitchens were similarly affected, serving 559,798 meals in March and April, up 8.8% from last year. These sharp increases in soup kitchen and food pantry use coincide with reports that boast that the number of New York City residents receiving public assistance is at its lowest in 42 years.

“When New Yorkers need to obtain more than a million charity meals in just one month, something is very wrong,” said NYCCAH Executive Director Joel Berg. “There are many causes of hunger, poverty and homelessness in New York City, but these figures suggest that the way welfare reform is being implemented has increased poverty in the City.” Berg called on Mayor Bloomberg to re-examine current anti-poverty initiatives to ensure that welfare reform moves beyond the superficial success of decreasing the number of public assistance recipients without a long-term plan for their economic security, especially in times of recession.

The rate of client increase among all City soup kitchens and food pantries is likely higher than the Department of Social Services number, as only half of all City food programs receive City support, including many of the largest and most well-established programs. In 2007, 81% of soup kitchens and food pantries reported an increase in clients, with 40% stating that the number of clients served had increased “greatly,” according to NYCCAH’s Annual Hunger Survey. These numbers coincided with the onset of the current recession, which has led to an overwhelming demand for the services provided at soup kitchens and food pantries across the nation.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Outreach, Language Access Needed to Counter Lagging Immigrant Food Stamp Enrollment

Immigrants are disproportionately vulnerable to economic insecurity and remain disproportionately underserved by the food stamps program, according to a study entitled “Nourishing NYC: Increasing Food Stamps Access to Immigrant Communities,” released by the Urban Justice Center last week. According to the study, eligible non-citizens are only 77% as likely as citizens to receive food stamp benefits, with citizen children of non-citizens remaining particularly underserved.

Current law allows immigrants who have legally resided in the United States for at least five years to participate in the food stamps program. All legal immigrants under the age of 18 or receiving disability benefits, regardless of their length or residence are also eligible. The Department of Justice states that legal immigrants cannot face deportation or “public charge” designation (which can negatively affect immigration status) as a result of applying for nutrition benefits. Additionally, illegal immigrants are granted certain protections from immigration status disclosure when applying for benefits for their resident children.

A complicated history of immigration requirements on both the City and national level has contributed to widespread misperceptions about eligibility requirements which, when compounded with language barriers and a lack of targeted outreach to immigrant communities, has led to lagging participation rates for immigrants and their citizen children.

The Urban Justice Center called on the federal government to extend food stamp benefits to all lawful immigrants, regardless of their length of residency. City and state authorities were urged to increase language access through community pre-screening programs, modeled after the Food Card Access Project and the FoodChange outreach program, which have effectively increased immigrant food stamp enrollment. Further city and state recommendations included providing service notices in the seven languages in which applications are currently available: English, Arabic, Chinese, Haitian Creole, Korean, Russian and Spanish. For the over 83,000 non-citizens in New York City who are eligible for food stamps but do not receive them, these policy recommendations are a step towards granting them the federal nutrition assistance to which they are entitled.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Senator John Edwards Brings Half in Ten Campaign to East Harlem Food Pantry

On Wednesday, July 9, Senator John Edwards met with local food pantry clients and toured the Yorkville Common Pantry in East Harlem as a part of the “Half in Ten” Campaign, which aims to reduce poverty in the United States by 50% in ten years. The New York City Coalition Against Hunger and World Hunger Year joined Senator Edwards in bringing attention to widespread hunger and poverty in New York City.

Prior to his tour, Senator Edwards met privately with a group of current and former recipients of food from emergency food programs, like Yorkville Common Pantry, who shared their experiences and discussed methods for combating hunger and improving food access.

Following the meeting, Edwards emphasized the growing prevalence of food insecurity among working families both in New York City and the nation. “When you have people - mothers, children, entire families – going to bed hungry right here in the richest nation in the world, that's not just wrong – it's immoral. I have seen it all over the country, and I have also seen the hard work and dedication of the good people like the folks who are here today, who have dedicated their lives to putting an end to this injustice. It is time we all joined in the fight, and made a nationwide commitment to ending poverty in America."

As Chair of Half in Ten, Senator Edwards is working with partner organizations to increase public and government awareness of issues that affect the poor and middle class, strengthen a constituency to demand action on poverty legislation, and advance policies that assist struggling American families. Current Half in Ten policy initiatives include increasing the minimum wage to 50% of the average hourly wage, expanding access to the Earned Income Tax Credit, and guaranteeing childcare assistance and early education opportunities for low-income families.

These initiatives would profoundly impact the 1.3 million New Yorkers living in food insecure households, says NYCCAH Executive Director Joel Berg. "Poverty in the U.S. and New York are unacceptable, and Senator Edwards is absolutely correct in calling for it to be cut it in half in a decade. In a society with as much wealth as modern America, hunger should be doubly unacceptable. The Senator's visit not only highlights the growing domestic hunger problem, but enables us to begin a national discussion of the basic steps necessary to make sure that all Americans have access to the food they need to lead productive and healthy lives.”

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

As Schools Close for Vacation, Doors Open for Summer Meals

As New York City children celebrate the beginning of summer vacation, sites across the five boroughs are ensuring that children can continue to receive free, nutritious meals throughout the summer. Over 700 hundred New York City schools, community centers, public pools, soup kitchens and food pantries participate in the federally-funded Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), offering breakfast and lunch throughout the summer to all children under 19. SFSP’s summer meals serve as a reliable source of nutritious food for children whose choices are otherwise limited to the offerings nearby fast food restaurants and bodegas, and who are more likely to gain weight and develop poor eating habits over the summer than during the school year. For students like ninth-grader Jessica Silva, free SFSP meals have already become an integral part of summer break. Says Silva, “If you don’t have money, or are just hungry and want free food, you can come here. It’s really good, too.”

Though program policies focus on making summer meals accessible-no fee, application, or ID is required to receive meals-nationwide participation rates are still well-below those of in-school free and reduced-price meal programs, which also suffer from underutilization. “Tens of thousands of [New York City] children are being reached through this program but hundreds of thousands of children need it, so we really need to get the word out about kids and parents needing to call 311 to find sites nearest them,” said New York City Coalition Against Hunger Executive Director Joel Berg. In an effort to increase awareness of SFSP, NYCCAH continues to conduct outreach among soup kitchen and food pantry customers while recruiting agencies to serve as future summer meals sites. Congress is set to review funding for SFSP, school meals and WIC before current funds expire in September 2009.

Visit the New York Department of Education for participating summer meals sites near you.