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.