NYC food bank says demand rising sharply


By Kira Bindrim

Published: September 16, 2009 - 2:33 pm


Though Ben Bernanke declared Tuesday a “likely” end to the recession, the forecast has yet to improve at the Food Bank for New York City. Some 90% of the bank's member organizations are reporting increases in the number of people coming to them for emergency food assistance, according to a survey released Wednesday by the Food Bank.


Over half of the Food Bank's organizations have seen demand grow by more than 25% in the last year.


“While staggering and disappointing, these numbers do not come as a surprise,” said Lucy Cabrera, president and chief executive of the Food Bank, in a statement.


The number of city residents experiencing difficulty affording food doubled to 4 million—about half of all city residents—between 2003 and 2008, according to a separate study conducted by the Food Bank in conjunction with the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion. Between 2007 and 2008 alone, the Food Bank estimates the number of New Yorkers struggling to pay for food increased by 26%, or about one million people.


“Over the past five years, the cost of groceries in the metropolitan area has increased by 22%,” said Aine Duggan, vice president of research, policy and education at the Food Bank. “If you take the average earner in the city, you can be guaranteed that their wages have not gone up by 22% in the same time period.”


According to Wednesday's survey, 63% of soup kitchens and food pantries reported an increase in the number of employed people accessing emergency food, and 87% reported an increase in the number of recently unemployed people receiving food assistance.


Need was the highest among seniors: Two-thirds of all food sites saw a jump in the number of seniors accessing food assistance, and 70% have seen an increase in the number of children using emergency food services.


“Seniors who lost their savings in the recession are absolutely headed to being on a soup kitchen or food pantry line,” Ms. Duggan said. “We are very concerned about seniors now, but more concerned about what will happen in the next few years.”


Emergency food sites say demand has already reached a fever pitch. Some 59% of soup kitchens and food pantries ran out of food in 2008, and more than two-thirds say they had to reduce the amount of food distributed per person or household, according to the survey. Nearly half of food sites turned individuals away for lack of food or resources, and 24% reduced the number of days or hours of food distribution.


City Harvest, which dubs itself a "food rescue" organization, last year distributed a record 27 million pounds of food in the city last year, four million pounds greater than the organization's goal. This year, City Harvest is planning to distribute 25 million pounds of food.


"We're constantly finding ways to be more efficient so we can put as many of our dollars back into finding more food as we can," said Jilly Stephens, executive director of City Harvest. The organization is making its 17 refrigerated trucks more environmentally friendly to save money on fuel, and has started using bicycles for pickups in parts of Manhattan.


The growing number of needy New Yorkers is made more challenging by a falloff in charitable giving. More than half of corporations have cut back their giving because of the recession, according to an August study from the LBG Research Institute. And money allocated to emergency food services from the federal stimulus bill, as well as last year's federal farm bill, has not been enough to offset the increase in food costs.


Wednesday's survey comes in the midst of broader efforts by the city to increase the amount of affordable and nutritious foods available to New Yorkers. Earlier this week, newly anointed Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley laid out a plan to reduce obesity levels citywide by 2012, in part by making fresh produce more available for residents.


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