Hunger Action Network of NYS
Emergency Food Programs Struggle during Great Recession to Feed Growing Number of Hungry New Yorkers
Groups Call for Increased Funding for Emergency food, Food Stamps (SNAP), Hike in Minimum Wage
A new study of hunger in New York State by Hunger Action Network, Hungry in New York: A 2012 Study of Emergency Food Programs in NYS shows that emergency food programs (EFPs) can never be a substitute for increased government action to end the growing problem of hunger. Instead of dealing with emergencies, food pantries and soup kitchens over the last 30 years have been forced by government inaction to evolve into supplemental sources of food for households who need assistance on an ongoing basis.
The programs reported an increase in the working poor and seniors coming for help. Seniors now make up 20% of EFP guests. (Nationwide, 1/3 of EFP households receive income from social security and 20% from SSI.) About 1/3 of EFP guests were children. In Hunger Action’s first survey of EFP guests in 1987, 4% were seniors and 52% were under 18; 18% of the households had someone employed.
“Food stamps (SNAP) have been by far our most effective response to hunger over the last three decades. Unfortunately, Congress is planning to cut food stamp benefits yet again as part of the farm bill, even though benefits are already too low to last the entire month. And the calls by President Obama and Governor Cuomo to end hunger among children have yet to see the concrete proposals needed to make this happen,” said Mark Dunlea, Executive Director of the Hunger Action Network of NYS (HANNYS).
In addition to supporting raising food stamp benefits in the farm bill (replacing USDA’s Thrifty food plan with the Low Cost Plan would raise benefits around 30%), Hunger Action supports a $10 million increase in state funding for emergency food (Hunger Prevention and Nutrition Assistance Program, presently receiving $29 million) and at least a $3 million increase in food funding in NYC’s EFAP (Emergency Food Assistance Program, providing $8 million for emergency food).
The lack of jobs, low wages and high housing costs are the three biggest reasons households are forced to seek emergency food; health care costs, child care, and need for education and training were secondary factors. Hunger Action has been calling for a hike in the state minimum wage to at least $10 an hour. There is also the need for increased state and federal funding for affordable housing programs, including raising the welfare shelter allowance and expanding Section 8 rental subsidies. Most of the state’s EFPs were formed after the massive cuts in public housing programs (e.g., section 8) in the 1981 federal budget; those cuts still remain in effect.
“Around the state, minimum wage earners and other low-paid workers have turned increasingly to food pantries, and soup kitchens, which struggle to keep up with the rising demand. Here in downtown Albany, more and more we are seeing working families come through our doors. Their hard earned wages are not enough to keep them above the poverty line. No one should be trapped in poverty by low wages,” said Rev. Deborah Jameson of FOCUS Churches, which coordinates several emergency food programs less than a block from the state Capitol.
Hunger Action Network has also called for a public jobs program to make the government the employer of last resort. HANNYS supports a major public jobs effort to put low-income people to work to help rebuild after Hurricane Sandy. NYS and local districts spend virtually none of the annual billion dollars plus surplus from the federal welfare block grant on jobs programs; the federal government has consistently rated NYS among the worst in the country in helping to move welfare participants into jobs.
The farm bill passed by the US Senate included a $4 billion cut in food stamp benefits; the House Agriculture Committee bill seeks a $16 billion cut. Two years ago Congress cut food stamps by $2 billion in order to fund reauthorization of the child nutrition program; those cuts take effect late in 2013.
As the demand for emergency food has surged since the Great Recession started, food donations from the government and private sector has dropped, especially from the federal government. A recent survey by the NYC Food Bank found that 25% of the member EFPs had closed since 2007. The number of EFPs in NYC had increased from 30 or so in 1980 to over 1,300 a few years ago.
More than 2/3 of the 560 food pantries and soup kitchens in a statewide survey this fall reported a drop in food donations. Yet 89% reported that they served more people last year, with food pantries reporting an 8% increase and soup kitchens 2%. 40% of the programs reported that they turned people away at some point; this number is higher in NYC.
Food banks, the warehouse operations that provide a significant portion of the food distributed by EFPs, especially the smaller ones, have become much more dependent on government funding.. When they were initially established three decade ago, food banks received much of their donations from corporate food sources. This has decreased over the years due to mergers and corporate buyouts in the food industry, and the emergence of secondary markets which buy partially damaged food for resale rather than having it donated.
In addition to increased government funding for emergency food (HPNAP, EFAP, EFSP, TEFAP), Hunger Action also wants a higher percentage of government funding allocated to assist EFPs with their non-food costs (e.g., capital equipment and transportation) and more funding for fruits and vegetables. The survey did find that all levels of governments and EFPs have been working to improve the nutritional quality of emergency food, though more needs to be done.
“No level of government provides an adequate voice to those actually distributing food to low-income guests. EFPs as well as their guests need to be listened to by local, city and state officials, not just the food banks. The programs need to have more flexibility in addressing EFP needs,” added Dunlea, who noted that this has been a long standing problem.
Hunger Action Network also called upon local and state governments to improve their planning to ensure access to food during disasters such as Hurricane Sandy. Many communities had difficulty accessing food when the stores lacked electricity.
Food relief was slow to develop in NYC. Anti-hunger groups have criticized NYC for its mishandling of Disaster SNAP (D-SNAP) benefits.
“Everyone is hurt by major disasters. But low-income households are already struggling to obtain basic necessities and don’t have the resources needed to find alternative housing or food in such emergencies. They are almost more likely to lose whatever paycheck they get,” added. Dunlea.
The report found that less than half of the guests at EFPs are receiving SNAP benefits, though almost all are income eligible (the 1987 survey found 43% receiving food stamps. Nationwide, only about 1/3 of eligible seniors receive SNAP benefits). Most EFPs do try to at least inform their guests about how to apply for SNAP and other benefit programs. More easy-to-read information about SNAP benefits and eligibility standards need to be distributed to EFP guests and eligibility standards should be released. The paperwork and documentation required for SNAP remains formidable, despite significant efforts by state and local officials to make it easier to apply for benefits. Many of the EFPs would like funding to pay for staff to help with case advocacy for their guests.
Half of the EFPs cite the need for additional volunteers. The largest need was for help with fundraising, followed by nutrition education and client benefit advocacy. Many programs now subscribe to some form of client choice, which allows customers to choose what food they receive. This requires more volunteer assistance.
A very small percentage of the EFP guests receive “welfare.. Nationwide, a little more than 5% of EFPs receive cash assistance. In HANNYS’ 1987 survey, about 30% of the guests did. TANF and Safety Net is far less of a safety net program than the former federal AFDC and Home Relief programs.