Tag Archive | "food stamps"

Bronx food stamp recipients say no to ban on sugary drinks

Bronx food stamp recipients say no to ban on sugary drinks

At some Bronx grocery stores, drinks like Coca-Cola Classic, Fanta Orange, Nestea and Seagram’s Ginger Ale are cheaper than water. A recent weekly special at C-Town Supermarket in the Belmont neighborhood offered five 1.5-liter bottles of Coca-Cola for $5, while advertising the same-sized bottles of Poland Spring water for $7.45. The incentive to buy drinks that promote obesity and diabetes can be seen and heard loud and clear on the supermarket shelves in the Bronx.
Sugary drinks on sale at C-Town Supermarket in the Belmont neighborhood. Photo: Brent Ardaugh

Sugary drinks on sale at C-Town Supermarket in the Belmont neighborhood. Photo: Brent Ardaugh

Mayor Bloomberg and Gov. David Paterson want to discourage people -- that is, poor people -- from consuming too much sugar, by banning food stamp recipients from using their benefits to buy certain sugary drinks. Many Bronx residents believe this effort unfairly targets the poor, and worry about what's next on the mayor's hit list. “If you drink too much of anything it’s not a good thing,” said Irving Scott, a Bronx carpenter, who receives food stamps and believes he's responsible enough to moderate his own behavior. “Let people have the freedom to buy what they want.” Outside a Fine Fare Supermarket in Hunts Point, another construction worker said the proposal felt like discrimination. “I think we should be able to have the same benefits as everyone else,” said Richard Cruz, who also relies on food stamps. “We aren’t even able to get hot sandwiches right now; they have to be cold.” On Arthur Avenue, Virginia Martinez, who uses her food stamps to buy soda, found the proposal invasive. “Bloomberg is over-doing it,” she said. “This time it’s soda – what’s next?” Under the two-year plan, food stamp recipients would not be able use their electronic benefit transfer cards – the card recipients use to buy subsidized food – to buy drinks that contain more than the equivalent of one packet of table sugar in a 12-ounce serving. The only exceptions would be milk products, milk substitutes and fruit juices without any added sugar. “The [food stamp] program has always excluded certain categories of products without nutritional value – like cigarettes and alcohol – and we believe that a strong case can be made for adding sugary drinks to that list,” Bloomberg said. Many New York City residents are asking how far is too far, but particularly in the Bronx, where according to the U.S. Census, nearly one-quarter of Bronx residents received food stamps in 2007. If approved by the United States Department of Agriculture, food stamp recipients in New York City could not use their benefits to buy sugary drinks. Other items already excluded from the food stamp program, also called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, include tobacco, liquor, vitamins, medicine, pet food, paper products, hot food and household supplies. This proposal is not the first time elected officials have tried to block access to sugary drinks. In 2004, the Minnesota Department of Human Services asked the United States Department of Agriculture to ban sugary drinks and candy from food stamp purchases. The federal agency rejected the proposal, claiming it would cause customer stigma at supermarket cash registers and the belief that low-income people do not buy nutritious foods. According to the department of agriculture, research showed that food stamp recipients are wise shoppers and their nutrient intakes are similar to those of higher income consumers. In a related attempt earlier this year in New York, Gov. Paterson pushed for a penny-an-ounce tax on sugary drinks to help narrow the state’s $9.2 billion budget gap, but lawmakers eventually slashed the proposal from the revenue bill after the New Yorkers Against Unfair Taxes released series of unrelenting anti-tax ads. One of the ads featured a woman saying, “Tell Albany to trim their budget fat, and leave our grocery budgets alone.” Now Bloomberg and Paterson are preparing for round two – this time with a proposal that applies to only food stamp recipients in New York City. “There’s no denying that childhood obesity is an epidemic, and there’s no denying that it’s hurting our children in low-income communities the most,” said Bloomberg. “Eliminating these beverages from allowable food stamp purchases would give New York families millions of more dollars to spend on food and drinks that provide real nourishment to them and their children." Unlike the Minnesota plan, the current proposal focuses only on sugary drinks, not both candy and sugary drinks. But health officials say it is enough to put a dent in sugary drink sales, especially those coming from food stamp users. According to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, $75 million to $135 million in nutrition assistance benefits were spent on sugary drinks in New York City last year. Many store owners and managers, some of whom are just starting to rebound from the recession, are concerned their sales will drop if the ban goes into effect. Wally Hassen, the manager at Day & Night Deli Grocery in Little Italy, said his store makes about $700 a week from sugary drinks, and most of his customers use food stamps. “It’s going to affect the small businesses,” Hassen said. “They [the government] are not fixing the economy like that.” Spokespeople for the department of health and mental hygiene would not comment on whether a plan is in place to reimburse small businesses for sales lost because of the ban. A statement issued by the American Beverage Association, the trade association representing companies that manufacture and distribute non-alcoholic drinks, criticized the proposal saying it is just another attempt by government to tell New Yorkers what they should eat and drink, and will only have an unfair impact on those who can least afford it. Carl Smith, a food stamp user who was recently shopping with his wife at a Key Food Supermarket on Westchester Avenue, said the ban would affect what drinks he buys. “I won’t be able to buy it [soda] because I have no money,” Smith said. “I think it’s stupid. We should be allowed to buy food.” Carl’s wife, Lori, said she buys four cases of soda a month, and Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Sprite are among her favorites. She, too, thinks the ban goes too far. “What’s next? Coffee?” she asked. Although the proposal has many Bronxites fired-up, it is part of a larger citywide effort to fight obesity and Type 2 diabetes, two conditions exacerbated by eating or drinking too much sugar. A 2007 neighborhood report from the Bronx District Public Health Office found that obesity is more common in the Bronx than in New York City overall. The long-term care required to treat these conditions puts stress on the health care system, causing local and national health expenditures to skyrocket. The New York State Department of Health estimates that treatment for obesity-related diseases – like Type 2 diabetes – costs the State more than $7.6 billion every year and the U.S. $150 billion. In 1998, Medicare and Medicaid financed approximately half of the costs of obesity-related diseases in the U.S., according to a study published in the Health Affairs journal by Eric Finkelstein and his colleagues. Obesity-related diseases affect more than just the patients; these diseases also affect current and future generations of taxpayers. “We feel strongly that the government should not be subsidizing or promoting a product that we know makes people sick, especially in the name of nutrition,” said Dr. Thomas Farley, the New York City Health Commissioner. Farley said the proposal targets drinks that are essentially nothing more than sugar water. A 12-ounce serving of water contains no sugar, but original lemon-lime Gatorade has the equivalent of about five packets of table sugar and Coca-Cola Classic has nearly 10. Under the ban, most drinks with more than one packet of sugar would be excluded from allowable food stamp purchases. Sugary drinks contain empty calories, which pump extra energy into a person’s diet without providing nourishment, just like a roommate who takes up space in an apartment but does not help with chores. Most sugary drinks run up calorie intake without giving the body a satisfied appetite in return, causing people to consume even more calories than they would by drinking water alone. These extra calories promote excess weight gain, a risk factor for Type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes occurs when the body does not produce enough of the hormone insulin – the ticket sugar uses to gain admission into cells – or when the body ignores it. When sugar cannot move into cells, it backs up in the blood, sometimes with insulin, acting like a line of people waiting to get inside a movie theatre. Over time, high levels of blood sugar can damage the kidneys, eyes, heart and blood vessels. There is a clear, independent link between sugar consumption and risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, according to Dr. Frank Hu, a professor at Harvard Medical School, who studies the effect of diet on Type 2 diabetes. “The increase in consumption of sugar has paralleled with the epidemic of obesity and Type 2 diabetes in the U.S.,” Hu said. “Sugar-sweetened beverages have not been on the radar screen for most health professionals until recently. In the past, so much emphasis was put on fat, but now we recognize that sugary drinks are more deleterious.” Hu said the evidence against sugary drinks is now strong enough to start making public health recommendations. But is the best way for a city government to combat obesity and diabetes through restricting soda for the poor? Another solution to tax all soda drinkers crumbled earlier this year after Paterson’s penny-an-ounce tax faced opposition from the New Yorkers Against Unfair Taxes. Reducing the size of cans and bottles in vending machines is also an alternative, according to Dr. Robert Kushner, a professor at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “It makes intuitive sense that the key is to reduce access,” Kushner said. One of the challenges of reducing access, though, is identifying the many different sources of sugar available to consumers. According to Kushner, sugar is not like cigarette smoke, which comes from a single source. Other experts, and some food stamp users, argue that restricting access alone is not enough because it does not teach people how to adopt healthier behaviors. “There needs to be education to complement the SNAP program,” said Amy Lesh, the clinical nutrition manager at St. Barnabas Hospital. “Nothing is going to work without education.” Food stamp recipient, Richard Cruz, a 34-year resident of Hunts Point, said he understands what the mayor is trying to do, but he does not think Bloomberg is going about it the right way. “If he would have a class on things that make you fat, then may be people would relate to that better,” Cruz said. “I would attend one even though I’m not overweight – it’s for my health.” Bloomberg admitted in early October that banning soda from food stamp purchases is not a perfect solution, but after a failed tax proposal, he said it is another way of going about the problem. Dr. Peter Selwyn, a professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University, said political officials should speak with different stakeholders in the affected population before making policies. “This should inform the decision making,” said Selwyn. “I’m not aware this was part of the process or not.” The proposal is currently in Washington, D.C., where it is undergoing thoughtful and careful review, according to Hans Billger, a public affairs specialist at the United States Department of Agriculture. Some Bronxites said even if the federal agency does approve the proposal, they are not convinced it will actually stop people from buying sugary drinks. “If they don’t buy it with food stamps, they’re going to buy it with cash,” said Ivette Lee, a food stamp user who buys ginger ale at C-Town. “Are they going to stop making cash, too?”

Posted in Bronx Life, Food, Food and Beyond, Special ReportsComments (1)

Out of Work and Waiting for Another Chance

The Workforce 1 Career Center on East 149th St. in the Bronx is bustling with people seeking employment. Photo: Alec Johnson

The Workforce 1 Career Center on East 149th St. in the Bronx is bustling with people seeking employment. (Alec Johnson/ The Bronx Ink)

By Alec Johnson There are lines everywhere. Lines to get in, lines to ask questions and lines for the bathroom. At an unemployment office in the Bronx, it seems like waiting is the only job that many who need work can get. The Bronx is no stranger to joblessness. But as the poorest congressional district in the country,  Bronx County has been hit by the recession harder than much of the nation. Even residents who are used to getting a steady paycheck now find themselves competing for jobs that have disappeared. As national unemployment levels reached a 26-year high of 10.2 percent in October, Bronx unemployment surged further to reach 13.3 percent. That translates into more than 185,000 Bronx residents who are out of work, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Now, instead of earning a living, they wait in line. Their path to the Workforce I Career Center on 149th Street may have begun in the Dominican Republic or Puerto Rico or just up the street on the Grand Concourse. But now they are all looking for the same thing: hope.  Each face in the line tells a story. An immigrant from Ghana relies on his faith to keep him going.  A father struggles to find a way to support his family.  A former prisoner who admits he made mistakes searches for a way back into the world. The newest faces in the line belong to former proud members of the working class, people who haven’t had to depend on social services in the past. Now, like so many others, they, too, can only wait. “A significant population of Bronx works in service and support jobs and when the main economic engine disappears that obviously ripples out,” said Jim Brown, an analyst for the state labor department. Theresa Landau, the director of the Morrisania Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) federal nutrition program calls this group of recently unemployed, the “new poor.” The term, she said, characterizes those who held jobs that have evaporated because of the recession. A recent study by The New York Times found that unemployment has led to a large increase in reliance on food pantries and federal programs across the nation. The study found that 29 percent of Bronx residents are relying on food stamps. These are the people who are actively trying to find jobs and don’t want to just sit back and collect government checks, but may soon be forced to. Last week, they streamed into the Work Force 1 office,  only to leave the same way they went in: unemployed. “I’ve been coming here every day for seven weeks,” said Joe Cologne, a laid-off maintenance worker who is married, has three children between the ages of three and five and has lost two jobs in the past two years. Cologne’s daily trips over the past two months to the Workforce 1 office have left him discouraged. “I want to make a good living,” he said. “At times I can’t sleep. I want to get a job.” Leaning against the wall and squinting his eyes even though it was a cloudy day, Cologne spoke softly and sadly about why he waits in line every day. “I’m trying to find something steady,” he said. “I’m sick of moving from job to job.” Cologne had his last job for only six months and made $12.60 an hour.  Before that, he spent from January to March sending out resumes. Happy that he saved some money for a rainy day and that his wife has managed to keep a low-paying custodial job, Cologne’s family hasn’t needed to count on public assistance. He is, however, worried that when he finds work, he will only get a minimum-wage job. Two years ago, the labor department set him up with a job that paid only $6.25 an hour. “You can’t support a family and pay rent on that,” said Cologne, whose monthly rent is $1,300, not including utilities. A minimum wage job, which now pays $7.25 an hour, is just a fraction of the $21 hourly wage guaranteed by his union, 32BJ SEIU, the largest property services workers union in the country. A union job would be ideal for Cologne, but if one is not available, there are services such as food pantries and the WIC program that could help feed his kids. According to Landau, the WIC program provides benefits to approximately 8,000 people in the Bronx and she hopes to increase that to 9,200 this year. Statewide, the number counting on WIC grew from 509,752 in August 2008 to 520,477 a year later. “We’re hoping to open up new sites in communities that have not typically been considered low income,” she said, about targeting people like Cologne who would qualify for assistance because they have children under age five. WIC  is a Department of Health program for people who  make up to 85 percent more than the poverty level. For example, a family of four with a combined income of $40,793 would qualify if they had infants. Unlike a food pantry, WIC gives participants a check they can use to buy nutritious food, such as fruit, vegetables, milk, whole grain bread and eggs for pregnant women, infants and young children. But looking for help from the government is still an uncomfortable experience for many in the line. One man outside Workforce 1 used to make his living helping people. Now, he’s the one who needs help. “This is my first experience” with unemployment, said the man, who immigrated to New York from Ghana 12 years ago. “I always had work—no problem.” The man, who is a U.S. citizen his late 60s would not give his name, but said he is a former employee of the Human Resources Administration of New York City. He was laid off two years ago from the city organization, which provides temporary relief for individuals with social service and economic needs, and now is in search of work himself. “It is difficult to get a job,” he said. Since losing his job, he has lived on his savings, a part of which he sends to his wife and children in Ghana. And although the unemployment office hasn’t yet found him a job, he said he has taken advantage of computer classes offered to the jobless and is in the process of getting a master’s degree in theology of the Christian ministry at the Bible College at the New Covenant Christian Church in the Bronx. “You have to engage yourself in doing something,” he said. “You must force yourself into something and stick to that.” His theology studies have “helped him through,” and eventually he hopes to enter the ministry where he will teach Bible school and counsel parishioners. “I want to help people,” he said. Stressing the importance of searching for work, he said. “You can be proud if you are looking for a job, but not if you collect assistance without trying.” Factors such as difficulty with English, poor education and even criminal records contribute to the Bronx’s higher unemployment rate, said Brown. That’s the case with Joe Carter, who hasn't had a job in four years and is on food stamps. He was released from a three-year prison sentence for narcotics possession six months ago and has been looking for work since then. “I need a job,” said Carter, a father of a five-year-old daughter. “I’m working every angle.” Sharply dressed in shirt and tie and a black coat, he clutched a paper he thought would be a key to a job. He earned the training certificate in prison after taking a six-month course at Bronx Community College in building maintenance. He said he couldn’t find a job before he got in trouble, “but it’s definitely worse now” and  he doesn’t see the end in sight. “I’m just holding on,” he said. “I hope the economy picks up and I can get a job in the near future.” According to Brown, there just aren’t enough jobs to go around in the Bronx. A significant portion of Bronx residents need to travel outside the borough for work and the farther people need to go from their home to find work,  the more difficulties they have. In the city, it’s not so hard, he said. But when the jobless try to go north to Westchester County, for example -- where the unemployment level is nearly six percentage points lower -- affordable transportation is a huge obstacle. Ed Buggs commutes every day from the Bronx to Queens for a low-wage job.  A former bus driver, Buggs, 45, lost that job last year and recently started driving for Access-A-Ride,  a car service that drives the elderly and disabled to appointments. Although Buggs is employed, he said the driving job isn’t enough to fulfill his dream of going to college. “I’ve been putting out resumes and got one call back.” Buggs has his second interview at a hospital next week for a housekeeping position. The hospital, he said, offers tuition reimbursement, which would fund his education. Buggs battled the lines inside the drab Workforce 1 office to get help writing a thank-you note to the hospital where he interviewed last week. If he gets the second job and goes to college, Buggs hopes to find a steady job so he never needs to wait in that line again.

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