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46-year-old woman from Parkchester disappears in Lower Manhattan

46-year-old woman from Parkchester disappears in Lower Manhattan

Maria Toro - Missing person

Maria Toro, 46-year-old Parkchester resident.

Maria Toro has been missing for a week, police say.

Toro is a 46-year-old resident of 2004 Ellis Ave., in the Bronx. She was last seen on April 30, near 79 Baruch Dr., in Manhattan, according to police reports. She was wearing a T-shirt, navy pants and brown boots, reports say.

Residents from her building told the Bronx Ink on Friday that Toro and her husband, who goes by the nickname Indio, mostly keep to themselves and have a five-year-old daughter.

The family moved into the apartment building a few months ago, said Pleinio Camacho, the building superintendent. Camacho said that he last saw Indio Toro, an employee of a Hunts Point bagel factory, on Sunday evening. Camacho added that Toro’s mother was sick, and she may have gone to care for her.

Sari Flores, another neighbor, said that she saw Toro last week, but she was not presently aware of Toro’s whereabouts.

The NYPD is seeking the public’s assistance in locating the missing woman. If you have any information, please contact the NYPD at 1-800-577-TIPS.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Crime, Southern Bronx1 Comment

For Some, Teaching Cuts Are Bad News – but No Surprise

For Some, Teaching Cuts Are Bad News – but No Surprise

By Alice Speri

End of semester examinations and summer vacation aren’t the only things on teachers’ and parents’ minds at P.S. 86 Kingsbridge Heights School in the Northwest Bronx. Prompted by cuts to the state budget leaving the city $5 billion short, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced today plans to further trim the public school system budget.

While schools are not the only institutions affected by the cuts, they are among those that will be hit the hardest, as some 6,700 educators’ jobs will be lost when the measures come into force in September. This number includes 300 teacher’s aides.

On Thursday, teachers and parents enjoying ice cream outside school were just learning about the latest cuts, but the news hardly surprised them.

“The first thing they do is cut services for children and the elderly, it’s very archaic the way they always attack the weakest members of society,” said T. Pannell, who teaches kindergarten through third grade and whose daughter is also in kindergarten at the school. Pannell added she is not worried about her own job and praised the principal of Kingsbridge Heights for his management of the school’s budget, but she said she is more concerned about the broader implications of the trend.

Kingsbridge Heights School is one of the largest public schools in the nation. (Speri/BronxInk)

Kingsbridge Heights School is one of the largest public schools in the nation. (Speri/BronxInk)

“It’s not a matter of making cuts but of being more efficient,” she said. “They are all in a ‘this has to go’ mentality, rather than ‘this has to be tightened,’ whether it’s with schools or with public housing.”

Pannell added that concern will grow even further when teachers and parents realize the scale of the cuts.

“Are we going to feel this? For sure,” she said. “But to see how much we are going to feel it we’ll have to wait until September.”

While some cuts seem inevitable, many agree there should be other ways to get around the problem.

“Personally I’d never get into the ‘the sky is falling and we’ll have to have layoffs’ mode,” Dee Alpert, publisher of The Special Education Muckraker, wrote in an e-mail. The website is devoted to special- education issues. Alpert suggested instead that little is being done to ensure greater efficiency. “I’d scream like mad about the well-documented fraud, waste and corruption and demand to know exactly what’s being done to end it.”

Being on the receiving end of the bureaucratic knife is not new to New York City’s public schools, and while many acknowledge that times are hard for everyone, they express concern and frustration that children always seem to be the first to pay the price.

“We don’t need any more school cuts, we have too many kids cramped in these classrooms,” said L. Delacruz, a sixth-grade teacher at Bronx Middle School 206, whose son is a third-grader at Kingsbridge Heights. Delacruz said that teachers and staffers alike are already overwhelmed as it is with one teacher often having as many as 30 students in each classroom. “That’s a lot of kids,she added.You can’t get them to learn anything.

Class size has been an increasingly pressing issue in the city’s overcrowded schools.

“Class sizes are growing at an accelerating pace. Now we face the prospect of losing 6,000 teachers, as the student population grows,” said Leonie Haimson of Class Size Matters, a non-profit dedicated to reducing the number of students per classroom. “Together that is going to mean increases in class sizes to their largest in 20 years.”

Haimson added that the city’s money is wasted on bureaucracy and contradictory measures.

“The Department of Education is spending $5 million on recruiting and training new teachers,” she said. “And at the same time they want to lay off 6,000 teachers.”

Marcus Winters, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, agreed.

“These cuts are particularly problematic in the city, which has spent the last three, four years really hiring new high quality teachers,” he said.

Others turn to those city agencies that were saved from the cuts to try to understand why schools are suffering so badly.

While Bloomberg had originally planned to cut 892 officer positions from the already downsized police department, he decided to leave the police untouched.

“Now the police is not getting cut because of all these terrorist threats,” said Delacruz, who admitted she wouldn’t know where to suggest cuts that would minimize damage to New Yorkers. “We shouldn’t see any cuts at all,” she said.

But the decision to cut teachers over police officers may have less to do with terrorism and more to do with financial interest, some suggest.

“This is a fiscal decision, police starting salaries are just much lower than ours,” said Mary Paranac, a fifth-grade teacher who has been working at Kingsbridge Heights for three years.

Mary Paranac with some of her students at Kingsbridge Heights School in the Bronx. (Speri/BronxInk)

Mary Paranac with some of her students at Kingsbridge Heights School in the Bronx. (Speri/BronxInk)

Paranac added that she is especially worried about the criteria for these cuts, a concern raised by many. Some have suggested using test scores to determine layoffs, while others recommend the decision is based on seniority, though both methods leave teachers fearing for their jobs.

“I’m concerned about how this is going to happen,” Paranac said, adding that she thinks the cuts are likely to affect new teachers in the Teach for America program or other young teachers who have been on the job for only one or two years. Like other teachers, Paranac praised the Kinsgbridge Heights principal for his devotion to his staff, but said many Bronx schools are not as fortunate. “I have many friends who are scared about the safety of their jobs,” she said.

Laying off teachers based on seniority may affect the quality of the teaching, some fear.

“I think the research suggests that there is no systematic relationship between experience and effectiveness in the classroom,” said Marcus Winters of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, who opposed cuts by seniority and also suggested that the correlation between class size and quality of learning is not as strong as many believe. “The problem is that we are going to have a reduction in teachers’ quality,” he said.

While some laid-off teachers may be able to find employment elsewhere, many end up leaving education altogether.

“My sister-in-law was a teacher in the East Bronx but she was laid off with the last cuts,” said Esly Griffin, a young mother of two, at Kingsbridge Heights on her way to pick up her 8-year old son. “Now she works in a hotel. But that’s not her job. She went to college to be a teacher.”

Additional reporting by Sunil Joshi and Shreeya Sinha.

Posted in Education, Northwest Bronx, Politics0 Comments

Gains in National Job Figures Don’t Mean Bronx Resurgence

Gains in National Job Figures Don’t Mean Bronx Resurgence

Bronx residents line up outside a Workforce 1 job center in February. (Zabaneh/Bronx Ink)
Bronx residents lined up outside a Workforce 1 job center in February. (Zabaneh/Bronx Ink)

Story by Shreeya Sinha, Lynsey Chutel and Sunil Joshi

While the national jobs figure for March indicated that the country is on the path to economic recovery, the employment picture in the Bronx was not so sanguine. Unemployment in the borough remains several points above the national average, and thousands of residents are still unable to find work.

For more coverage of Bronx job hunters, click here.

Above the bustling business hub of 149th Street and Third Avenue, rows of almost 50 people sat on Thursday in a cordoned-off waiting room in the Workforce 1 office, looking for help from the Bronx branch of the citywide employment agency.

This was Veronica Eaddy’s second time at the “one-stop employment center.” With a soft round face under thick waves, in a casual jeans and T-shirt, Eaddy, who asked that her full name not be used, doesn’t look her age at 42. But the string of jobs she has tried her hand at reveal a long struggle with unemployment. “I’ve been through many systems where a job has been promised and nothing happened,” Eaddy said.

Nationwide, there may be reason for optimism after the jobs report revealed that the depressed economy may be turning around. The U.S. Department of Labor announced on Friday that 162,000 jobs were added to the national economy, though the nationwide unemployment rate remained steady at 9.7 percent. But an increase in the national jobs number does not necessarily correlate to an increase in the number of jobs in the Bronx, said James Brown, an analyst with the New York Department of Labor. “There’s not a one-for-one increase,” he said. For Bronx job-seekers like Eaddy, economic struggles are still festering.

“You pretty much need a master’s degree to pick up the garbage,” said Eaddy, who feels that living in the Bronx has been a disadvantage for her. She’s spent the last seven years looking for a full-time job. Unemployment in the borough soared to 14 percent in January, well above the national average. Hunger and poverty are stark realities in the borough that is already struggling to compete with a higher-skilled workforce.

“That doesn’t bode well for the Bronx, which has a pretty high percentage of the local workforce that doesn’t have high levels of educational attainment,” said Jonathan Bowles, director of the Center for an Urban Future, a research firm.

About half of Bronxites work outside the borough, Brown said. Many of these jobs in the hospitality and retail sectors are not only low-paying but largely dependent on consumer spending, which has sunk deeply in the recession. Analysts are hopeful that consumers will grudgingly start spending. Consumer spending picked up for the sixth month running in March.

“A lot of establishments are closing,’’ Eaddy said. “There aren’t many jobs that you could get if you come straight off school, like low-skilled jobs. And most of them can be pretty crap.”

Arthur Merlino, manager of Workforce 1, has worked in the labor market for 48 years, crisscrossing labor offices across the city’s five boroughs. After two years managing the Bronx branch, he admits that the borough poses a specific challenge. “This is a real serious time,” said Merlino, his eyes closing as he spoke. “I’d say, experientially it’s been a very difficult couple of years.”

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. has made economic development and job creation a priority but critics have accused him of costing the Bronx thousands of jobs at a mall he opposed at the Kingsbridge Armory. Diaz opposed the project on the grounds that it would not provide Bronxites living wages. The City Council voted against the mall.

Franck Strongbow, associate director of the James Monroe Senior Center agreed with Diaz. After he spent eight months living “between a rock and a hard place,” Strongbow lived paycheck to paycheck when he was 25 years old trying to make ends meet. For him, a job is all about dignity. “What the borough president was saying was, “Let’s start with affordable living range because people should be paying an honest day’s labor.” According to the Center for Urban Future, 42 percent of the Bronx workforce is making less than $10 an hour.

The payroll company Automatic Data Processing said this week that U.S. employers cut 23,000 jobs in March, dampening expected forecasts ahead of Friday’s job report. Much of the nationwide growth in March was in temporary government jobs, particularly by the Census Bureau, which hired 48,000 temporary employees, according to the Department of Labor, including enough staff for four Census offices in the Bronx.

Elsewhere, there are signs of life in the borough’s jobs market. A coalition of construction workers in the Bronx said it has seen employment opportunities tick upward in March, with more activity on job sites. While the overall number of new building permits issued in the Bronx during the first three months of the year is down from 2009 — 44 to 18 — there were eight new building permits issued in the Bronx in March (up from four last year), according to the Department of Buildings. Richard Rodriguez, an administrator for United Hispanic Construction, said that his labor coalition was able to connect more workers with jobs in March, particularly with a new development on 163rd Street in Morrisania.

Despite the real-estate market’s more than two-year struggle, prices in Manhattan remain high, fueling new development in the outer boroughs, said Ken Margolies, director of organizing programs at the Cornell School of Industrial Labor Relations. But while Margolies noted the signs of improvement, he cautioned against unbridled optimism. “The key thing about the news,” he said, “is that, by and large, the new jobs that are being created pay less than the ones that are being lost.”

The manufacturing sector is another industry that saw accelerated growth in March, according to the Institute for Supply Management, a private trade group. In February about 11,000 jobs were created, the largest increase in almost four years. Other sectors like health care have also done well, especially after President Obama’s health care plan passed. In March, 27,000 new health care jobs were added to the national economy, according to the Department of Labor.

That’s where Eaddy hopes to try her luck. She’s optimistic that the health care reform will revitalize jobs in this sector. “Since there was such a push going on in public health, I think that a lot of jobs are going to start that I want to get into while the getting in is good,” she said. Eaddy is trying to secure a voucher from the New York State Department of Labor that will cover a six-month-long Medical Billing and Coding course at Hostos Community College. Waving a manila folder on Thursday, with the college brochure inside, she checked that she had all her documentation. She had been waiting for move than an hour for her 4 p.m. appointment.

While she waits for a steady job, Eaddy decided to start her own business. “Splendidly Me,” a cosmetic business that she runs out of her East 180th Street apartment, supplements her income. When she is not teaching customers how to make coconut oil or twist their hair, Eaddy is pinning her long-term hopes on the health care industry.

“Now I have to come back,” she said, “but this time I’m doing something smart with a marketable skill so that I can have some leverage.”

Posted in Money0 Comments

On Day of Census Snapshot, 37 Percent of Bronx Has Responded

What does the Bronx look like today? The answer could resonate for the next decade after the 2010 Census is complete.

If the Census is a decennial snapshot of the American populace, today would be the day the photo is taken. That’s because the Census forms ask respondents to answer questions about their household as of April 1. The information gleaned from the national headcount will be used to divvy up more than $400 billion in federal money for hospitals, schools, emergency services and roads, among other things. When money is allocated, it is based on the number of responses in a given area. People who are not counted can cause services to become overextended.

“The accuracy of the Census is crucial,” said Rafaela Santos, a specialist with the Census Bureau.

Watch a video on one group’s efforts to get the word out about the Census.

With two weeks remaining before the April 15 deadline, however, the Bronx has only 37 percent participation, according to figures published on the Census Bureau’s Web site. The borough lags behind the state total, 46 percent, and the national total, 52 percent. Currently, the Bronx ranks in the middle of the five boroughs in response rate, ahead of both Brooklyn and Queens.Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. challenged his constituents on Wednesday to finish first among the five boroughs, telling the New York Daily News, “We are going to be the first borough this year.”

Language was a key barrier to participation for many Bronx residents in the past, but the Census Bureau is working to bridge the gap this year, offering surveys in several different languages, including Spanish, Urdu and Mandarin. Santos said that participation has increased as non-English speakers have learned more about the process.

“People are much more receptive,” she said. “They are understanding. They are getting factual information about what the Census is all about and how it affects them.”

One measure of public opinion suggests that the Census Bureau’s efforts to sell the national count to non-native English speakers in the Hispanic community may be paying off. Roughly 80 percent of foreign-born Hispanics said that the Census is good for their community, as opposed to 57 percent of native-born Hispanics, according to the Pew Research Center. Overall, 70 percent of Hispanics said that the Census was good for their community.

The Bronx is 51 percent Hispanic according to 2008 data published by the Census Bureau. Santos said that roughly 56 percent of Bronx residents participated in the 2000 Census, a figure that officials hope to top this year. “A good number is anything beyond 2000,” she added.

Posted in Bronx Beats, Bronx Blog, Bronx Neighborhoods, Multimedia0 Comments

Bronx Church Fights to Keep Neighborhood Affordable

Bronx Church Fights to Keep Neighborhood Affordable

(L-R) Bobby Britt, Frederick Crawford and Ruben Diaz Jr. look on at a ceremony breaking ground at a new housing development. (Joshi/Bronx Ink)

(L-R) Bobby Britt, Frederick Crawford and Ruben Diaz Jr. look on at the ground-breaking ceremony. (Joshi/Bronx Ink)

East Morrisania was at its lowest point when Bobby Britt moved there 31 years ago. After a meeting with his pastor at the Union Grove Church in the mid-1980s, Britt set about rebuilding the community. Though his efforts were successful, he also saw many parishioners being priced out of the community.

On Friday, Britt saw the first step in stemming that tide, a housing development aimed at low-income neighborhood residents. Construction on the Fletcher C. Crawford Housing Development, which is expected to provide 84 units of low-income units, began with a ground-breaking ceremony.

East Morrisania’s population ballooned by more than 63 percent between 1990 and 2000, according to Census data. But much of the growth was in younger, more affluent residents, causing rents in the neighborhood to grow. Lester Souder, a deacon of the church, estimated that as much as 50 percent of the church’s membership is economically disadvantaged. Congregants are leaving the neighborhood in droves, unable to afford the rising costs of living there. Many are opting to live in more affordable boroughs or to leave New York completely.

“They lost their housing. They lost their apartment. They lost their sense of who they were when they moved out of the Bronx area,” said Frederick Crawford the current pastor of Union Grove and the son of Fletcher Crawford, the pastor who initially gave Britt the directive to rebuild the neighborhood.

To stem the parish’s exodus from East Morrisania, Britt turned his efforts to building affordable housing on a plot of land next to the church. After years of work, he succeeded in securing financing, and the church is now partnered with Macquesten Development to build the development, which will cost $27 million.

“This is a place where people are going to be able to afford and continue to invest in their futures in the Bronx,” said Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., who was on hand to celebrate the groundbreaking. Diaz presides over one of the nation’s poorest urban counties, where more than 25 percent of the population was below the poverty level in 2008, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Public housing in the Bronx is not meeting the needs of the economically depressed population.

“There’s always more of a demand for low- and middle-income housing in the Bronx,” said Joan Tally, a senior vice president for the New York City Housing Development Corp., which helped finance more than 81 low-income projects in the Bronx, including the Union Grove construction. Since 2004, the City of New York has invested $1.9 billion in the borough in the form of bonds and corporate subsidies through the Housing Development Corp. However, Tally said, “There’s never enough funding to go around.”

For now, money is not a problem for the construction of the Union Grove project, which is expected to be finished a year from now. Church leaders expect the new building to maintain and even grow the parish’s membership rolls.
“We’re trying to build our city back,” said the younger Crawford.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Southern Bronx0 Comments

Called “Burger Boy,” Teenager is Cleared of Assault Five Years Later

Called “Burger Boy,” Teenager is Cleared of Assault Five Years Later

Now that this is over, I can live my life, said Albert Garcia. (Joshi/Bronx Ink)

"Now that this is over, I can live my life," said Albert Garcia. (Joshi/Bronx Ink)

Albert Garcia was manning the grill at a McDonald’s in the Bronx late one night when Officer John Florio of the New York Police Department bought a Big Mac in the drive-through. The next day, Garcia was arrested, with Florio alleging that Garcia, then 18 years old, put ground-up shards of glass in the sandwich. Florio claimed that one bite of the sandwich left him with a chipped tooth and cuts in both his mouth and throat.

Five years later, on Tuesday, Garcia was cleared by a Bronx Supreme Court jury of all charges, including a felony count of attempting to assault a police officer. Garcia’s attorney, Raymond Aab, called the case, “one lie after another, an outrage.” Garcia, now 23, expressed relief in a press conference on Thursday.

“People from my neighborhood who didn’t know would come up to me and say, ‘Oh, look, that’s him, that’s burger boy,’ ” Garcia said. “It was hard for me to get a job. I have a son, so it was hard for me to support him, to get work. This was on my back. This was in my way of living my life.”

Garcia was working at the McDonald’s at 875 Garrison Ave. in the Bronx on January 29, 2005, when Florio, a 20-year-veteran of the police department and a member of the city’s K-9 unit, purchased a Big Mac. After eating part of the hamburger, Florio complained to his supervising officer that glass had been put in the hamburger. Officers from the 41st Precinct were then dispatched to the restaurant to investigate.

There, they arrested Garcia, taking him back to the police station, where he claims that he was interrogated for hours and was the subject of verbal and physical coercion by the officers. He maintains that as a result of the harsh treatment, he gave a false confession in writing and on videotape.

“I felt trapped, really confused. I really didn’t know what was going on,” said Garcia, who told police officers that no glass was in the hamburger. He added that police officers “kept putting so much pressure on me, so much pressure. I was scared. I was crying. I didn’t know what to do, so I kind of gave up, and I gave them what they wanted to hear.”

He added, “They really treated me like a dog.”

In Garcia’s confession, which he later recanted, he admitted to smashing a picture frame, grinding the shards of glass and putting them in the hamburger. The Bronx district attorney’s office began prosecuting Garcia soon after his arrest. “There’s nothing in the statements and in the video that shows physical or psychological coercion,” said Gary Weil, the prosecuting attorney. Calls to the 41st Precinct were not answered. By Friday afternoon the NYPD’s Deputy Commissioner of Public Information had not responded to a request for comment.

However, forensic analysis of the glass, which was revealed in court, indicated that it was rounded and its thickness was inconsistent with that of a picture frame. Expert testimony indicated that the shards were consistent with “ubiquitous container glass.” Investigators also compared DNA evidence from both Garcia and Florio to a hair that was found on the sandwich; neither returned as a match. The jury took 40 minutes to return a not guilty verdict.

Aab said he believes that Florio made up the story in order to sue McDonald’s. “The fact is the cop made the whole thing up to get a pay day,” said Aab. “Within a couple days, he sued McDonald’s, and that speaks for itself.”

Florio was unavailable for comment, but his attorney, Richard Kenny, strongly disputed that claim. “The allegation that this is feigned is utterly ludicrous,” Kenny said.

Aab and Garcia said that they are considering filing a countersuit, but until then, Garcia said that he’s looking forward to spending more time with his 4-year-old son and enjoying a life without looming court dates.

“Now that this is over, now I can live my life,” he said.

Posted in Bronx Beats, Bronx Neighborhoods, Crime, Southern Bronx0 Comments

School Lunches Should Be Free for All Kids, Groups Say

Because of a mistake in filling out a form, Lisbeth Nebron was denied lunch at 218 Rafael Hernandez Dual Language Magnet School. (Baez/Bronx Ink)

Schools in the underfed Bronx draw attention to the need for improvement in the National School Lunch Program. (Baez/Bronx Ink)

By Astrid Baez and Sunil Joshi

It was a single empty box on a form that Ivellisse Nebron had dutifully filled out for the past two years in applications for her 9-year-old daughter Lisbeth’s school lunch. Despite having taken the form to work to enlist the help of the more English-proficient hairdressers in filling out each individual box, Nebron forgot to include her Social Security number. The omission was enough to warrant a call to Nebron at work, warning that her daughter would go without lunch.

The counselor at 218 Rafael Hernandez Dual Language Magnet School in the Bronx informed Nebron that, as a result, Lisbeth would not be allowed to eat lunch that day. The tie-up illustrates a common complaint about the program that provides free lunches to children in the largest school district in the nation.

Under application guidelines, Nebron was required to submit her Social Security number because she provided income information. Her daughter was to be counted among the 82.1 percent of children living on or below the poverty line who eat lunch for free, according to the school’s most recent “Demographic and Accountability Snapshot” on the New York City Department of Education Web site. “My daughter’s been a student at that school since she was in kindergarten and for them to withhold a meal that would otherwise be free is senseless,” Nebron said.

The misstep in filling out the application was the last straw for Nebron who has joined several other parents and educators in a push to change the system. “There’s a lot of red tape involved and the application tends to cause confusion among some parents, not to mention the added stress of the stigma associated with free meals,” said Roxanne Henry, Community Outreach Manager at Food Bank for New York City. Of the 1.1 million students enrolled in the New York City public school system, more than 70 percent are eligible to receive free or reduced-price lunch, Henry said. “A significant number of these students don’t want to participate, because free food is associated with being poor.”

A report published by The New York Times on March 1, 2008, found that participation in the lunch program was as low as 40 percent in New York’s high schools.

“It’s not so much the case with the younger kids, but when you get to the high school level you’d be surprised by how many teens are not eating, because they don’t want other students to know that their parents can’t afford to pay,” said Agnes Molnar, co-director of Community Food Advocates in New York City.
Congress will soon debate renewal of the Child Nutrition Act, which determines school-food policy and resources. The legislation was originally passed in 1966 and must be renewed every five years. The law was up for renewal on Sept. 30, 2009, but it received a temporary extension through the Agriculture Appropriations Bill.

In advance of the coming debate, several food-advocacy groups are building support for an amendment to the legislation that would direct enough federal money to make free school lunches available to all students.

Food Bank of NYC, a member of the New York City Alliance for Child Nutrition Reauthorization, is championing the universal school meals provision claiming that “both the application process and the stigma associated with being identified as poor act as barriers to participation” in the school lunch program.

“This is not just an individual family issue anymore, it’s a community concern,” Henry said.

The coalition of food-advocacy groups is conducting a letter-writing campaign targeting city and state legislators, including Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gilibrand, to channel support for the universal school meals provision. Citing the current process as labor-intensive, inefficient and prone to inaccuracy, the organization is urging Congress to replace the application-based system with a data-driven one. As of January 2010, the Food Bank reported having received more than 1,500 petitions signed by parents from the Bronx alone.

Following federal guidelines, students are separated into three groups based on their family size and income relative to the poverty level, $18,310 for a family of three, and two earnings thresholds. Students are eligible for free lunches if their family income does not exceed the first threshold, set at 30 percent above the poverty line, or $28,803 for a family of three. Students pay full price for lunch if their family income exceeds the second threshold, 85 percent more than the poverty line, or $33,874 for a family of three. Students whose family income falls between the 30 percent benchmark and the 85 percent benchmark are eligible for discounted lunches.

Extending universal school lunches nationwide would cost roughly $12 billion, says Janet Poppendieck, a sociologist at Hunter College who wrote the book “Free for All: Fixing School Lunches in America,” though she cautions that this is a “back-of-the-envelope calculation.” The federal government currently spends $11 billion on lunch reimbursement, but Poppendieck said that the money could be procured through an increase in the graduated income tax. She also said that partial financing could come from the millions of dollars saved by eliminating tiered school-lunch programs. She pointed out a study of 29 schools by Community Food Advocates, which concluded that in 2006, New York City spent more than 1,000 person-hours per school to process and execute the three-tiered school-lunch program. That translated to a cost of $16,330 per school, or more than $24 million for the entire district.

“It’s so expensive, this process of determining each meal and where it fits in the categories,” she said. “It’s a massive undertaking.”

The plan to extend lunch benefits to all students also received support from the Department of Education. Eric Goldstein, who heads the food program for the Department of Education, said in a written statement that “the benefits of the Childhood Nutrition Reauthorization would be a win for NYC public school students because it would help defray the costs for improved menu items that call for healthier ingredients, and it would help us to expand our universal lunch program. We have worked very hard over the past six years developing more nutritious options for both breakfast and lunch.”

Dr. Susan Rubin, a dentist and certified nutritionist, agrees that the cost of administering the current application system is high and wasteful, and could be redirected to implementing new food standards.

“We need to come up with a new paradigm and one that connects this issue directly to health care,” said Rubin, founder of the Better School Food movement turned non-profit, a proponent of universal school meals and putting better food in lunch rooms. Rubin believes that there should be a greater emphasis on providing healthier food, removing the “à la carte” option from lunch rooms that divide kids into “haves” and “have nots.”

In an open letter to parents, Rubin makes the connection between tight budgets, the need for cafeterias to make a profit for survival serving poor quality food that is “quick, cheap and profitable” and the resulting deterioration of children’s health. “Our kids are getting food that is downright dangerous,” Rubin said, “we can pay now or pay later.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Education0 Comments

Like a Supermarket, but the Food Here Is Free

Video by Shreeya Sinha

The line outside the food pantry at Highbridge Community Church forms three times every week, even in the biting cold.

The pantry, located at 1272 Ogden Ave., is open for just two hours a day, three times a week. Bundled in overcoats, most visitors take food home in shopping carts, though one woman on Wednesday loaded food into a rolling suitcase with a green and pink floral print.

The line is a familiar scene for Denise Richards, an administrator at the food pantry, who said that the number of people visiting the food pantry doubled in the past six months.

“I know a lot more people are unemployed; I’ve seen a lot more younger people coming in, people in their 20s, people my age, since a year ago until now,” said Richards, who is 26.

The scene outside the Highbridge food pantry reflects a stark reality. In some Bronx neighborhoods, more than one-third of the people report having difficulty getting enough to eat. New data also ranks the Bronx as the unhealthiest county in the state.

According to the results of a survey published last month by the Food Resource Action Center, 36.9 percent of respondents in Congressional District 16, which includes Morrisania, Highbridge and Mott Haven, reported difficulty in finding food over the past year. This translates to the nation’s highest hunger rate.

“By definition, hunger is that feeling or uneasiness and questioning about where your next meal is going to come from,” said Kate MacKenzie, director of policy and government relations for City Harvest, an organization that provides fresh fruits and vegetables to food banks.

The second study published on Wednesday by the University of Wisconsin School of Public Health found that the borough was the least healthiest county in the state. The Bronx has the second-highest mortality rate and the least availability of clinical care.

MacKenzie sees the two reports together painting a bleak picture for some Bronx residents.

“Poverty, hunger and health are interrelated,” she said.

City Harvest saw demand for emergency food increase by 17 percent from the fourth quarter of 2008 to the fourth quarter of 2009,  MacKenzie said. She also said that more than half of the affiliated food agencies in the Bronx have seen an increase in the number of visits by children over the same time period. The Food Resource Action Center study concluded that families with children were 1.6 times more likely to experience difficulty in finding food than those without children.

On Friday, New York State Sen. Pedro Espada Jr. announced a $200,000 grant for the Davidson Community Center. The money will defray the costs of running social programs, including a food pantry. Other pantries, like the one in Highbridge, still struggle for money.

Richards said that increased demand has stretched the food pantry’s resources to the point where it was forced to cut back hours and ration the amounts of food it distributed.

“Recently, we’ve had to shut down. We’ve had to close certain days due to lack of food,” Richards said. “We’ve had to adjust the number of food items someone can get.”

Bronx residents who face shortages at their primary food pantries can often make up the gap by moving around the area.

“The food does run out sometimes,” said Kenia Abreu, who is 39 years old and lives on Ogden Avenue. “That’s when I get prepared and look at the calendar and see what I can get from other pantries, because this is not the only pantry I come to. I go to other areas, as well.”

Abreu worked as a teacher’s aide until October 2009, when she was laid off. She relies on food pantries to help support her three children, aged 8, 6 and 4.

“It’s important for me, not only because I’m going for the economic situation, but also because the things they give here is healthy,” Abreu said. “We have the bread, which is something that we need for the kids. We have the cereal, the juices, the milk.”

William Clark, who lives on Summit Avenue, arrived at Highbridge Church at 3:50 p.m. on Wednesday, 10 minutes before the pantry opened. He was bundled in a blue coat, his hood pulled over his head and tightly around his face, to protect from a sharp wind. Clark lives with his son and daughter, and he was picking up enough food from the community center to last his family about one week. He didn’t make it inside until well after 5 p.m.

Posted in Bronx Beats, Bronx Neighborhoods, Southern Bronx3 Comments