Food pantries struggle with rising need
More seniors, working families reliant on services
CAPITAL REGION The Broadalbin Ecumenical Food Pantry got its start about 30 years ago, when a couple of women bought groceries and distributed them to needy people.
Today, the pantry is open Mondays and Thursdays and serves about 140 families each month. In 2011, the food pantry helped more people than ever before — 654, up from 506 the year before.
“When the economy went downhill, we picked up a lot of people,” said Joan Silvernail, one of the volunteers who runs the food pantry. “They were out of a job or laid off. A lot of people we serve are working, but they can’t make ends meet. We’re seeing a lot of senior citizens, more families with children.
“If more people come, we’ll try to help them.”
The pantry is operated by four churches: First Presbyterian Church of Broadalbin, Broadalbin Baptist Church and St. Joseph’s Church, as well as Broadalbin United Methodist Church, where the pantry is based. The organization serves anyone who lives within the Broadalbin-Perth Central School District.
Last week, the Hunger Action Network of New York State released the results of a statewide survey of emergency food programs, including pantries and soup kitchens. The survey was mailed in early fall to 2,500 programs receiving funding through the state Department of Health. Food programs throughout the Capital Region responded.
Mark Dunlea, executive director of the Hunger Action Network, said the organization has conducted similar surveys in the past, and the new survey was timed to coincide with the group’s 30th anniversary.
According to the study, the number of people served at food pantries in the month of June increased by 8 percent from 2011 to 2012, while the number of people fed by soup kitchens increased by 2 percent. Eighty-one percent of emergency food programs saw an increase in clients, while half saw an increase in the number of employed adults seeking help.
The three biggest reasons cited for using an emergency food program were lack of jobs, high housing costs and low wages.
Dunlea said one of the report’s most notable findings is the sharp increase in the number of seniors served by food pantries. A 1987 survey found only 4 percent of emergency food program clients were seniors; today, that figure is closer to 20 percent. As a result, the Hunger Action Network will likely focus more of its advocacy on programs and services that can help older adults, he said.
The number of food pantries in America has grown steadily since the 1980s. According to the Hunger Action Network, there were only three emergency food pantries in New York City in 1980; by 1988, there were 600, and today, there are around 1,300.
Once envisioned as a temporary measure to assist people in crisis, food pantries have become a permanent part of the landscape and have seen the number of people they serve steadily increase. Though the number of people served jumped during the recession and has continued to climb during the slow economic recovery, it was on the rise before that.
The report notes that emergency food programs have become institutionalized.
“A majority of programs have been open at least 20 years,” the report says.
Almost two-thirds of programs saw a decrease in funding from both government and private sources, and 89 percent voiced support for increasing state funding. Two-thirds of programs viewed promoting federal nutrition programs, such as food stamps, as part of their role, and the majority of food programs surveyed help clients access such programs.
“As demand for emergency food has soared since the beginning of the Great Recession in 2007, government and private support has not only failed to keep up with the increased demand (as well as food price inflation) but has actually declined,” the report notes.
The increase in meals served at the soup kitchen run by the City Mission of Schenectady has been significant. In 2010, the soup kitchen served 161,949 meals, and in 2011, it served 175,156; so far this year, the soup kitchen has served 188,000 meals.
“The need for food is higher each year,” said Michael Saccocio, executive director of the Mission. “We’re seeing more families, and more parents with children. ... When we hit 175,000 [meals served] last year, I felt that represented a peak. But clearly I’ve been proven wrong.”
Saccocio said people are struggling to pay multiple bills, and if free food is available, they will take advantage of it.
“Maybe it allows people to take care of other responsibilities,” he said.
Megan Quillinan, executive director of the Mechanicville Area Community Services Center, which runs a food pantry that is open Tuesdays and Thursdays, although the organization also serves walk-ins, said demand for food has been high.
“I don’t know if we could serve more people,” she said.
Quillinan said food pantry staff try to educate clients about services that might be available to them. They tell them about programs such as food stamps and WIC and talk about budgeting and planning.
“We want families to see the food pantry as a stepping stone,” she said.
The organization also directs people to mybenefits.ny.gov, a website where people can see whether they qualify for state assistance.
One of the food pantry’s goal is improving the quality of food available, Quillinan said.
“It’s not easy, because we rely so heavily on donations, and people can’t readily drop off fresh produce” she said, noting that the pantry lacks storage space.
“Our pantry is about the size of a closet,” she said.
The organization is discussing the possibility of creating a community garden in Mechanicville with Troy-based Capital District Community Gardens, in the hope that some of the produce could be distributed to food pantry clients.
Silvernail said the Broadalbin pantry has always received great support from within the community, but as the demand for food has grown, the organization has sought help from outside groups. About a year ago, the food pantry began obtaining some of its food from the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York, which supplies food pantries throughout the area with free and low-cost food.
“We needed to figure out how to get more food,” Silvernail said.
Another advantage to working with the Regional Food Bank is better nutrition, Silvernail said. The canned vegetables tend to be lower in sodium than the vegetables available at local stores, and quality produce is available at decent prices.
The Broadalbin pantry lacks refrigerator space, which makes it difficult to distribute fresh fruits and vegetables, but the organization’s relationship with the Regional Food Bank has led to an increase in produce for clients. During the summer, the food pantry was able to provide corn on the cob, and around Thanksgiving bags of oranges and bananas were available.
The Hunger Action Network study found that more emergency food programs are following and adopting basic nutrition standards. Saccocio said the City Mission is making more of an effort to ensure that the meals it serves are nutritious. Staff from Cornell Cooperative Extension sometimes review the City Mission’s menus, while nutritionists from Price Chopper have run classes in the mission’s shelters. The idea is to teach people how they can eat healthier on tight budgets.
The City Mission’s dining center, which was built in 2006, features walk-in coolers and storage areas, and was designed with the goal of serving fresh produce and other healthy food.
The Hunger Action Network report contains a number of recommendations for improving emergency food programs. They include:
u Increasing government funding for emergency food. The organization suggests directing some of this increased funding toward operating and capital equipment costs, such as the purchase of freezers, higher costs associated with purchasing healthier foods and helping local food programs and staff to assist clients in accessing other nutritional programs and benefits.
u Improving support services for emergency food programs by requiring the state and New York City to maintain an updated list of emergency food programs, their hours and their guidelines for clients.
u Provide programs with better technical assistance for fundraising, nutrition education and client empowerment.
u Address the root causes of hunger by increasing funding for job creation targeted at low-income households and raising the minimum wage.
The Hunger Action Network also supports re-evaluating the role of emergency food programs.
“EFPs are not the long term solutions to hunger,” the group explains. “They should be relied upon for emergencies, not as a monthly supplement for individuals whose government benefits and paychecks are too low to support a family. The state and local government should have a plan to reduce this reliance upon these programs, allowing them to be the last line of defense against hunger rather than the first.”