Nearly one and a half million New Yorkers, or about one in five, now rely on some form of aid in order to get food, according to the New York Daily News. That’s an increase of over 200,000 people in just five years.
The surge, which is putting immense pressure on charities and soup kitchens that try to help those in need, comes just after record-breaking surges in late 2012 as a result of Hurricane Sandy. Those relying on these food banks for meals can experience wait times in line of over an hour on average and, even in the dead of winter, first-hand reports say the lines are only growing longer and longer and people are lining up earlier and earlier. As the weather begins to heat up, those lines and wait times are only going to grow.
“It’s an astounding surge in need, and it’s because it is so hard for people to find jobs, or find a decent-paying job,” said Messenger Ken Sullivan, executive director of free food outlets run by Catholic Charities of the Archdioceses of New York. “So many people, too many people, don’t have enough money to pay rent and also eat.”
There’s also been a dramatic increase in New Yorkers who rely on food stamps, as the number has grown by half a million residents since 2008. These numbers come shortly after a late 2013 reduction in the food stamps program, caused by a failure to renew temporary benefits from the 2009 stimulus bill, that left New York households with an average decrease of $30 to $50 in their monthly food stamp allowance. This decrease caused a sudden surge in demand at food pantries late in November that left many charities with reduced meals and caused as many as 25 percent to turn people away due to lack of suitable food.
While the two largest charities in the city, Food Bank for New York City and City Harvest, provide food pantries and soup kitchens with over 110 million pounds of food a year, those working on the ground say it’s not enough. “Our Lady of Grace, in the northeast Bronx, saw the number of new households double in November — a 100% increase,” said Paul Costiglio, a spokesman for Catholic Charities. “Across the board, our programs are reporting a continued increase in the number of working people, unemployed and families.”
Those who receive aid from food pantries are more varied than one might think. Homeless people account for the smallest group served by the Food Bank of New York, according to its president Margarette Purvis. Ninety-five thousand veterans in the city rely on charity aid for food, or 6 percent of the total. Over 400,000 children are fed with the help of food pantries. Twenty percent of those using food pantries and soup kitchens are employed, and over half of them have full-time work. And an overwhelming majority, or 64 percent, are women.
While many conservatives are skeptical of people relying on food stamps and food banks for a meal, pantry volunteers who see a more firsthand account of the realities of poverty and income inequality think otherwise. “Would you wait two hours in the freezing cold or stand in a long line just for a little bit of food if you didn’t absolutely have to?”