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:

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: 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.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Parents Forced to Give Dietary Supplements to Ward Off Childrens' Hunger

Families living in food insecurity may be more likely to rely on “compensatory foods” to assuage their childrens’ hunger, according to a new study published in Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Of the 306 families surveyed, mothers in food insecure households were twice as likely to give their children supplements like PediaSure or Carnation Instant Breakfast to curb hunger. 13 percent used added sugar or other stimulants combat their childrens’ hunger.

For desperate parents, relying on supplements “may serve as a buffer to get their children through periodic food shortages,” said lead researcher Dr. Emily Feinberg.

Though the study identifies no clear link between relying on supplements to alleviate hunger and childhood obesity, Dr. Emily Feinberg of the Boston University School of Public Health noted that food insecurity and sporadic eating practices can lead to unhealthy weight for children. She encourages doctors to speak with patients about their access to food and to connect those patients who are living in food security with the appropriate benefits including Food Stamps and Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Program.

As the number of food insecure families continues to rise and parents use potentially unhealthy methods to compensate for the lack of adequate food, it becomes even more important for government to increase funding for nutrition programs and universal in-classroom school breakfasts to ensure that children are receiving the complete and balanced diet they need to grow into healthy and productive adults.