By Manuel Rueda
Wearing thick cotton gloves and a leopard print hat, Myriam Aquino hands out a one-pound bag of rice. Her client pushes his small shopping cart forward and both arrive at the next shelf. “You can pick one of these or one of those” she says in Spanish pointing to a bag of raisins and picking up a pack of figs.
The Community Food Pantry at Highbridge on Ogden Avenue, currently has no heating and the selection of brands is limited. But food is free here, and for thousands of Bronx residents with low incomes or no jobs, the groceries on offer enable them to save $20 or $30 that can be spent on rising rents, transportation hikes or other non-negotiable expenditures.
Aquino volunteers regularly at the pantry and is currently unemployed. She also takes some groceries home after everyone has been served. But she is also worried about the future of the pantry. Staff member salaries were suspended last week because the agency that runs the pantry is short of funds. And the variety of food Aquino says “is never like it was before.”
Like hundreds of food pantries across New York, Highbridge is facing difficult times. The 2008 recession, and the ensuing period of jobless economic growth has increased the number of people demanding the food pantry’s services.
In 2007, Highbridge used to get 800 unique visits per month says director Nurah Amatullah. Now it averages about 1,200 a month.
But funds for running the pantry are becoming scarce and its director says she may have to shut the place down in March because there is little money to pay for staff or operational costs.
“There are things in food poverty work that requires paid staff to do it.” Amatullah says in a subtle Trinidadian accent.
Hunger levels across the city are alarming according to the Food Bank for New York. The nonprofit estimates that 37 percent of New Yorkers resorted to emergency food aid at some point in 2010.
That number is slightly below the 40 percent figure registered in 2009. But Carlos Rodriguez, the Food Bank’s vice president for benefit access, points out that many New Yorkers are now limiting the amount of food they buy and its quality. His organization estimates that thirty percent of New Yorkers reduced their food intake last year.
Meanwhile, soup kitchens and food pantries across the city say greater numbers of people are showing up at their doors.
The New York City Coalition Against Hunger, an umbrella organization for emergency food providers, sent out a questionnaire last year to some 1,100 local soup kitchens and food pantries. More than 200 returned the questionnaire with 85 percent reporting they had fed more people in 2010 than in 2009.
The coalition does not keep statistics on exactly how many people were fed. But in its survey, 53 percent of respondents said the number of people they feed has increased “greatly.”
Executive Director Joel Berg says New York food pantries and soup kitchens improved their response to increased demand in 2010, thanks to greater investments by the federal government in food stamps.
In New York City last year, the federal government spent more than $3.2billion in food stamps through its Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program he says, taking pressure off local food pantries and soup kitchens.
Seven out of ten agencies reporting to the Coalition Against Hunger last year, also said that they received additional funding from the federal government through the Emergency Food and Shelter Program.
But anti-hunger advocates say most of the money goes towards food and little is left for operational costs and staff.
On Webster Avenue, near the Botanical Garden, the nonprofit agency POTS, -Part of the Solution- runs a soup kitchen that serves 350 hot meals a day and a food pantry that gets approximately 40 daily visits.
The number of people attending the pantry has increased by 20 percent over the past 12 months says emergency food services director, Sister Mary Alice Annan, while at the soup kitchen Annan reckons attendance has increased by 50 percent.
Staffing which consists of 15 employees has remained the same for years, with POTS relying on a large number of volunteers to stock food and serve the clientele.
“The need is getting so great and we don’t have enough money to pay for everything” says Sister Hannan. “So we would rather pay for food for the people than pay for staff.”
Like most who work in this industry however, Hannan says there are jobs that are best left to paid staff, such as operating databases, cooking in the soup kitchen and writing grant proposals. “Volunteers don’t always show up, so we use them to supplement what we do” she says.
Nurah Amatullah, from the Community Food Pantry at Highbridge says that while volunteers are a crucial part of her operation, she cannot rely on them to regularly receive and organize food deliveries that arrive at 8:30 am.
There is also a lack of people in the neighborhood trained to run databases that document how many attended the pantry, the number of people in their household and other data required by funders.
So while she advocates for the professional staffing of food pantries, Amatullah has had to furlough her staff of three, paying them small amounts of money as people donate cash to the food pantry through a PayPal account she set up in support of the pantry.
Amatullah’s organization -the Muslim Womens’ Institute for Research and Development- receives funds for operational costs from United Way and grants for staffing from Feeding America.
Funding from these sources has shrunk and Amatullah has not found another donor to fund pantry operations. It costs $2,500 a week to fund Highbridge and its sister pantry in Parkchester Amatullah says, with less than one third of this money going to staff.
But the lack of funds is currently so severe that Amatullah does not know if they will make it through March. Staff are currently volunteering their time to do essential jobs like taking orders and keeping the client database at both pantries. Amatullah claims this way of working is not sustainable.
Her three staff members are the main breadwinners for their families and they are already looking out for other job opportunities. “When they don’t get a check it is not just them” she says. “It is a household tethering on collapse.”