For households that struggle with food insecurity, November often marks the beginning of the particularly lean months. Cooler evenings mean bigger heating bills, putting more stress on grocery budgets. And school vacations mean children stay home, without access to the free or reduced-price school meals that help keep many households afloat.
When those households run out of money and food stamp benefits, many turn to food pantries and soup kitchens. At this time of year, emergency food assistance charities — often referred to as “the last line of defense against hunger” by the people who manage them — see a sharp spike in the number of meals they distribute per month.
That spike would be a challenge under normal conditions. The past few years, however, have been anything but normal for food assistance charities. Besides the usual ebb and flow of seasonal demand, soup kitchens and food pantries are now struggling to address skyrocketing year-round demand for emergency aid.
The holiday spike is especially pronounced in low-income, high-density urban areas, where food-insecure households coexist side-by-side with robust, accessible charity networks. In New York City’s Brooklyn borough, the Bed-Stuy Campaign Against Hunger “always sees [its] needs increased, maybe doubled," said its founder and executive director, Rev. Dr. Melony Samuels.
“We are expecting to serve about 50,000 individuals this holiday season,” Samuels told Al Jazeera. “The heating bills, kids out of school, and the cost of food all contribute to what the needs are. Families are not able to buy food."
But even when the holiday season ends, Bed-Stuy Campaign Against Hunger and similar charities will be up against a seemingly insurmountable challenge.
Two years ago, the rising nationwide demand for emergency food assistance was considered an emergency. Now food pantry heads are resigned to what they see as a new status quo. Swami Durga Das, CEO of The River Fund New York in the city’s borough of Queens, described the current level of need as a disaster even “more drastic” than the one that followed Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
When River Fund was doing post-Sandy disaster relief work, “there was funding, there was resources,” Das said.
But that has changed.
“We had so much to give, and I thought, this is how we should do this,” Das said Monday at a public event hosted by the Food Bank For New York City. “Now that it’s over, I think, ‘This is how we have to do this?’ Because now we struggle to keep up with the numbers, the amount of food."
River Fund has struggled despite its connection to the largest and most heavily resourced food bank in the United States, Food Bank For New York City. That system, with more than 1,000 pantries and other emergency food access points, has access to the kind of extensive donor network only New York City can offer. In 2013 alone, it pulled in more than $80 million in revenue, according to financial disclosure forms. Yet despite the prodigious annual haul, even Food Bank For New York City can’t keep up with skyrocketing need.
Nearly half of the food bank’s member agencies ran out of adequate food at some point in September, according to its annual membership survey, released Monday. Last September, 60 percent of its member agencies reported similar shortages.