Anatomy of a Hunger Crisis

“This is How Families Go Hungry” by Ned Resnikoff

Urgent, heart-breaking, infuriating:

What’s happening in New York is a testament to just how dire America’s hunger crisis has become. America’s most populous city also has what is perhaps the country’s most robust emergency food infrastructure, yet it is still flailing to address skyrocketing food insecurity and greater demand for emergency services. In 2013, Food Bank For New York City—America’s largest food bank—delivered 71 million pounds of food to nearly 750 agencies around the city. Yet the food bank, its member agencies, and hundreds of other organizations providing emergency food assistance around the city, are still finding it impossible to keep up with the growing pace of food insecurity.

“I don’t think it’s ever been the way it is now…It seems like we just see more and more people coming in here,” said Community Health Action of Staten Island executive director Diane Arneth.

In a city of 8.3 million people, as many as 1.4 million residents suffer from food insecurity according to the New York City Coalition Against Hunger’s 2013 Hunger Report [PDF], which uses data from the USDA and adopts the agency’s definition of food security as “access … to enough food for an active, healthy life.” That number is likely to go up before it goes down, advocates say.

The 2008 financial collapse vastly hiked the number of hungry people in New York and across the U.S. Between 2006 and 2012, according to NYCCAH estimates, roughly 200,000 New Yorkers became food insecure. To make matters worse, the same economic forces that added those 200,000 to the ranks of the needy also decimated the non-profit safety net which was supposed to catch them. Between 2007 and 2012, New York lost 25% of its food pantries and soup kitchens.

The 2009 federal stimulus bill helped to limit the damage by adding back $45.2 billion to the food stamp program and raised the cap on maximum benefits. Yet food insecurity never returned to pre-recession levels, and November’s $5 billion cut wound up making things worse.

In fact, the Food Bank For New York City reports that its member pantries and soup kitchens saw a greater increase in demand as an immediate result of the food stamp cuts than they did in the weeks after Hurricane Sandy slammed the city in 2012.

Now another cut is coming. President Obama recently signed a law that will cut food stamps by an estimated $8.6 billion over the next 10 years. The cuts, which eliminate “Heat and Eat” policies in 15 states and Washington, D.C., will cause 850,000 households around the country to lose an average of $90 per month. Roughly 190,000 of those households are in New York City alone.

The day before Obama signed the law, Berg held a NYCCAH staff meeting where he said “people were practically in tears thinking about what’s going to happen.”

“We’ve been socialized in America expecting some sort of Frank Capra-esque happy ending, or that somehow we’re going to cope…That’s just not the case,” said Berg. “People are going to suffer more.”

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