Julie Jacobson / AP Photo

Food pantries stretched to breaking point by food stamp cuts

Survey of New York charities finds many have been forced to turn away clients

One year after drastic cuts to nationwide food stamp benefits took effect, the country’s largest food bank is struggling with what it describes as an unprecedented hunger emergency. Data from the Food Bank For New York City shows that emergency food assistance charities simply don’t have the resources to keep up with a worsening hunger crisis.

“We are in a crisis in this city. We just are,” said Food Bank For New York City President Margarette Purvis during a Monday speech.

The Food Bank For New York City calculates that 1.4 million New York City residents — roughly 16.5 percent of the city's population — depend on emergency food assistance. That figure is slightly higher than the 14.5 percent of the U.S. population served each year by the broader Feeding America network of food banks, of which Food Bank For New York City is a member.

The United States Department of Agriculture estimates that roughly 14.3 percent of U.S. households in 2013 “lacked access to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members" — a nearly 30 percent increase since 2007, the year before the financial crisis.

Food Bank For New York City gathered the new data to quantify the local effects of a $5 billion cut to food stamps that took effect on Nov. 1, 2013. That cut, the result of expiring provisions in the 2009 federal Recovery Act, resulted in food stamp users nationwide receiving fewer benefits, with the average family of four losing about $36 per month in assistance.

Food Bank For New York City serves roughly 63 million meals a year, making it the largest food bank in the United States. Because of its location in one of America’s cultural and financial capitals, the organization also has access to a uniquely deep-pocketed donor base: Donations from celebrities, foundations and special fundraising events totaled nearly $25 million in 2013 alone, excluding the value of food donations. Yet even the country’s biggest food bank was ill-equipped to deal with the $5 billion cut to food stamps, according to its member food pantries.

Of those food pantries and soup kitchens that responded to the survey, 80 percent reported increased demand for their services. More than one-third reported that they had been forced to turn people away at some point during September because they didn’t have enough food to serve everyone. And more than 60 percent said they had been forced to reduce the amount of food they included in their pantry bags.

Based on public benefit data, the food bank estimates that last year’s food stamp cuts amounted to roughly 56 million lost meals in New York City alone.

“It’s no longer an emergency,” said Swami Durga Das, executive director of the Queens-based Food Bank For New York City. “This is part of the fiber of New York.”

Additional federal policy changes will likely compound food insecurity in other parts of the country. In February, President Barack Obama signed an agricultural omnibus bill that threatens to cut food stamp benefits for households in several states. Other states have also begun to reinstate food stamp work requirements that had been temporarily suspended in the aftermath of the recession.

Purvis said that few people grasp the severity of America’s ongoing hunger crisis. In some parts of her own city, she said, the infrastructure no longer exists to deal with it.

"I have to make sure people understand that not only is it getting worse, it's getting worse in certain neighborhoods. There are neighborhoods that are drowning," Purvis said. "There are people who are living in parts of Queens and parts of the Bronx where there's no just capacity. Where it doesn't matter right now how much you'll give to Food Bank, because there are certain neighborhoods where it's not reaching them."

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