When the Love Gospel Assembly was destroyed by a four-alarm fire over the summer, the Fordham neighborhood not only lost its Grand Concourse church, it lost one of its most important resources for the poor during one of the borough’s most economically strained periods yet.
Love Gospel had served anywhere from 8,000 to 10,000 meals a month. Its loss is still causing added stress to local food providers, particularly in the holiday season.
“The fire was a debacle for us over the past three months,” said Maureen Sheehan, director of Part of the Solution food pantry and kitchen that operates a mile from where Love Gospel once stood. Her kitchen staff found that traffic from August to October was up 30 percent this year compared to the same period last year.
“It’s awful, because we’re such a tight space and we really can’t handle overcrowding,” said Sheehan. “We were overcrowded to start with.”
The July 25 fire came at a time when the need for food assistance was increasing in the Bronx. A January report by the Food Research and Action Center found the South Bronx is the neediest congressional district in the country in terms of food and poverty. Three-quarters of the food banks surveyed in the Bronx reported to the New York City Coalition Against Hunger that demand for food continued to climb in recent months.
The POTS food pantry, which is separate from the kitchen, experienced a 36 percent increase from 2009 during the three-month stretch. In August through October last year, there were on average 650 families a month visiting the pantry. During the same time this year, there were 885 families per month.
Sister Mary Alice Hannan, who has been the executive director of POTS since 1996, said they were prepared for the influx in August, a time when the Love Kitchen usually closed its doors, but were not for the months to follow. POTS expects its expanded $6.5 million facility will be ready in February. But until then, the organization needs “more funding for what we do,” Hannan said.
Even on Nov. 29, long after most people had already received their Thanksgiving Day packages, there was a long line for the food pantry that spilled onto the street by 9 a.m.
Five years ago, POTS provided 210,000 meals. In 2009 the number jumped to 330,000. This year, the pantry will provide over 380,000 meals, said Sheehan.
In order to meet the upcoming holiday needs, POTS is asking food banks that served the Love Gospel Assembly to send any surplus food to its facility. Although Hannan said they have cooperated, POTS can always use more.
The most recent statistics from the Department of Agriculture show that food insecurity in the country is at its highest since 1995. A 2008 report found that 14.6 percent of households did not have enough food for all family members at some time during the year.
But the greatest need may be in the 16th Congressional District, which makes up part of the South Bronx. The food resource report, which used data from a Gallup poll that surveyed more than 530,000 people, stated that more than 36 percent of this congressional district reported there were times during the past year when they did not have enough money to buy the food they or their family needed – the highest percentage of any congressional district in the country.
“The demand that we’re seeing from families has just been increasing so much,” said Khushbu Srivastava, the director of marketing and communications for the Women’s Housing and Economic Development Corporation, which is located on 168th Street in the Bronx. The housing and social services group partnered with the New York City Coalition Against Hunger to try and raise awareness about food insecurity in the borough. “I think that the biggest thing that we see is that more and more working families are needing support for food, and I think that’s been a really difficult thing.”
The Coalition found that more than half of the city’s food pantries and kitchens said they could not meet the growing need.
“In what is still the richest city in the history of the world, it is unacceptable that more than half of the city’s food pantries and soup kitchens do not have enough food and money to meet the growing demand,” Joel Berg, executive director of the Coalition, said in a press release. “It is no wonder that one in eight state residents now face food hardship, with most barely hanging on. The only bit of good news is that the massive increase in federal nutrition assistance in New York prevented a full-blown hunger catastrophe.”
According to the Coalition, in 2010 the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program/Food Stamp Program will provide more than $3.2 billion of federal funding for food in New York City. The figure is $458 million higher than last year. The latest report from the Human Resources Administration said in 2009, 29 percent of the Bronx was using food stamps.
“We really believe that the government needs to do more in terms of supporting emergency food services,” Srivastava said. “We’re giving out less food than we did last year. Last year at this time, we were giving out 150 bags per week. We’re only giving out 80 bags of food per week now, but the demand’s probably twice as high as the year before.”
POTS and WHEDco rely on government assistance, donations and the Food Bank. Srivastava said less has been available to take at the Food Bank, and what is available goes fast.
It doesn’t look as if the Love Kitchen will come to the rescue anytime soon either. Jeffrey Williams, who is in charge of coordinating the soup kitchen and pantry service for Love Gospel Assembly, said there are no definite dates for its reopening.
“We have to dig out and clean inside,” said Williams, who used to depend on meals at the Love Kitchen. His role is now to direct patrons to other local kitchens and pantries. “That’s what we are working on right now.”