Morrisania Food Bank Is Running on Empty

Novelia Jackson, 64, Morrisania, leaves the Back to Jerusalem food pantry on Oct. 21 with bags of food. She has relied on the pantry for almost nine years. Photo by Alec Johnson

Novelia Jackson, 64, Morrisania, leaves the Back to Jerusalem food pantry on Oct. 21 with bags of food. She has relied on the pantry for almost nine years. Photo by Alec Johnson

A small sign written in purple marker hung next to the door of the Back to Jerusalem Pentecostal Church food pantry last week. It told people to come back another day. The Morrisania food pantry, which has given meat, canned vegetables and potatoes to the needy almost every Saturday morning for the past 10 years, was empty.

By Wednesday, the church had received a meager shipment of food from the Food Bank of New York City, bagged it up and was ready to hand it out. The food, however, was gone by the end of the day.

Each week, more than 1,000 food pantries and soup kitchens in New York City give food to the city’s hungry. According to the Food Bank for New York City, 1.3 million people rely on these pantries and soup kitchens because they cannot afford to provide food for their families.

A survey released in September by the Food Bank – which provides most of the food distributed in emergency food sites like the Back to Jerusalem Church –  reports that demand for food was up considerably in 2008. Ninety percent of the city’s food sites showed an increase in the number of people in line for food in last year.  Volunteers in Morrisania say the situation has become even worse this year.

The Bloomberg administration has tried to curb food shortages. In 2007, the city hired Benjamin Thomases, a 2003 graduate of the Social Enterprise Program at Columbia Business School, as the food policy coordinator. The position was part of anti-poverty programs begun by the city’s Center for Economic Opportunity.

A recent analysis by the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, however, found that Bloomberg’s poverty effort assisted just three percent or 42,000 of the 1.5 million New Yorkers living in poverty.

Denise Acevedo-Strong, who orders food from the city food bank for the Morrisania church’s food pantry, speculates that a reduction in donations caused by the poor economy coupled with increased demand has led to food insecurity.

“A whole lot of donors that donated before to the Food Bank aren’t donating anymore,” she said.

Acevedo-Strong said she has little choice in the amount or type of food available for her to order. This week, she said, she might have a few cases of only six types of food she can order, such as beans, peanut butter or canned spaghetti. Meat, she said, is not on the list.

“It varies from week to week,” she said. She said that last year, there was twice the choice.

“We just got a shipment yesterday,” said Debora Bovain,  a volunteer at the Back to Jerusalem Church, while sorting potatoes Wednesday morning. The shipment, she said, included jars of peanut butter, cans of northern beans, string beans and cartons of milk, hardly the makings for a meal.

Bovain and other church volunteers scraped together enough food between the shipment and their meager reserves, which included the potatoes, to provide 140 bags of food to hungry patrons.

Until October, the pantry would hand out about 150 bags a week, which would include meat (usually frozen but occasionally canned),  a starch such as potatoes, vegetables and extras such as juice or peanut butter. But this month meat  would be a great luxury for the food pantry.

“There is no meat—period,” said Bovain’s mother, Pastor Lurena F. Sutton, 70. “We ran out two weeks ago.”

Ricardo Rosado, 45, who lost his construction job a year and a half ago, waited in line to pick up food for his five children, the youngest of which is 11 .

“Coupons are not enough,” said Rosado. He said that high food prices combined with his inability to get a job make his trip a necessity by the end of the month. “Welfare promises to get me a job,” he said. “But they don’t.”

Last week, about 140 families like Rosado’s received food from the Back to Jerusalem Pentecostal Church; this week if the food doesn’t come in they may have to find somewhere else.

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