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Hungry and Without Options in New York

As the last safety net for the needy, the Food Bank for New York City is just about all that stands between millions of vulnerable New Yorkers and abject hunger.

| Sun Apr. 26, 2009 10:11 PM EDT

Introduction by Tom Engelhardt

In recent weeks, President Obama has gotten great press for winning speeches and handshakes globally, as well as for setting a new tone for American policy abroad, while administration figures, including Secretary of the Treasury Geithner and the President himself, have begun talking up "glimmers of hope" on the economic horizon. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) was setting another tone entirely, however—no smiles, no handshakes, no glimmers, lots of gloom.

It issued a sobering report last week indicating that the global financial sector has lost a staggering $4.1 trillion (yes, you read that right) in value in the last 20 months. The report also predicted a global "credit famine," and sharply lowered its previous predictions of global economic health. The IMF now expects the world economy to contract by 1.3% in 2009 (previously it had suggested a 0.5% growth rate). It also suggested that 30 of the world's 34 most advanced economies would actually shrink this year. It indicated as well that it believes the U.S. economy is set to contract by 2.8% and the European Union's by a startling 4%, far worse than expected.

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Closer to home, U.S. job losses and cutbacks continue to pour in as "mass layoffs" rose to record levels and initial claims for unemployment insurance jumped for the 12th straight week. There are now a total of 6.1 million applicants and the official U.S. unemployment rate, now at 8.5%, is expected to crest above 10% early next year, if not before. (The unofficial rate, including all those out of work or significantly underemployed, is far higher.) Similarly, rents and apartment occupancy nationwide dropped for the third straight quarter.

These are, of course, global or national trends, and they're big, even abstract, numbers—big enough perhaps to start turning all the references to "global recession" into "global depression." But out on the street, as Nick Turse found out recently, the fallout from all of this is anything but abstract. As part of his ongoing Tough Times series for TomDispatch, he set out searching for signs of hunger in New York City, and found them quickly indeed. (By the way, a paperback of his superb book, The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives, has just been published.) Tom

A Tsunami of Hunger

Is New York City About to Be Overwhelmed?
By Nick Turse

A crisis is brewing and Carlos Rodriguez sees it in ever longer lines. "More work boots with plaster or paint on them," he says. "Guys clearly coming in from the work site."

A spokesperson for the Food Bank for New York City, Rodriguez has experienced tough times before, but not like this. "It takes a lot of pride for a New York construction worker to stand on the soup kitchen line. That's something I never saw, even during 9/11, during that recession."

Here, on a quiet, tree-lined section of 116th Street in Manhattan, it's possible to see the financial crisis that has the planet in its grip up close and personal. The new working poor, as well as more families with young children, are threatening to overwhelm New York City's last hunger safety net.

And the hungry lining up on this street today may be only a harbinger of things to come. Behind them, in an increasingly hard-pressed city, a potential tsunami of need threatens to swamp the entire system. The one million-plus needy New Yorkers of today could, according to those experienced in feeding the poor, explode into tomorrow's three million hungry mouths with nowhere else to turn.

Three million—and right in the heart of the country's financial capital.

If this potential nightmare comes to be, it will be played out, in part, behind the nondescript storefront of the Food Bank's Community Kitchen and Food Pantry of West Harlem and the more than 1,000 allied food pantries, soup kitchens, senior centers, low-income daycare centers, shelters and other partner programs spread across the city's five boroughs.

In Harlem, in the late afternoon, the needy begin to congregate beneath a green awning that reads "Food Change": hungry New Yorkers without other options, men and women, young and old, black, white, Asian, and Hispanic—a full spectrum of need.

On a recent afternoon, I saw it first hand. By 3 pm, they were beginning to patiently gather. By 4 pm, the line already stretched half a block and was just starting to wrap around the corner of 116th Street onto Frederick Douglass Boulevard. By 5 pm, the tables in the Community Kitchen were already full, yet the queue out on the street was still sizeable. "It's pretty typical," Rodriguez told me. "This is very representative of what we're seeing and hearing throughout our network."

Two Million New Mouths to Feed

In 2007, even before the current financial meltdown hit, approximately 1.3 million New Yorkers depended on soup kitchens and food pantries. A poll by the Food Bank in late 2008, however, revealed something far more startling: one in four New Yorkers said they lacked savings to fall back on and, if they lost their jobs, would be in immediate need of food assistance. This is an especially worrisome figure as the rate of job loss in the city has been quickening over the last year, with an ever-weakening construction industry taking an especially hard hit, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While hard numbers aren't yet available, the Food Bank has already seen double-digit increases in need since it took that poll—high double digits at some food pantries and soup kitchens.

"That means two million people on the fringe of our network may need to access our services at one point or another," says Rodriguez. "We're barely meeting demand for who we're serving now. What do we do if those two million don't get back on their feet on time, exhaust their savings and any alternatives, and then have to start accessing emergency food? It's a major concern."

Rodriguez outlines this nightmarish scenario in remarkably calm and measured tones, perhaps in part because, today, there's little time or room for panic in the frenzied world of the Food Bank's Vice President of Agency Relations and Programs.

The Harlem Community Kitchen, which relies heavily on volunteers to augment its workers, was distinctly understaffed on the day of my visit. Back-to-back-to-back deliveries had left its dining room, where hundreds of people would soon be fed, packed with cardboard boxes full of food.

Mid-interview, I took a break and pitched in, helping to stack cartons of slightly bruised and aging peppers, apples, and salad greens, along with bread, canned vegetables, toilet paper, and 50-pound bags of onions, on hand trucks and carts that were whisked off, unloaded, and quickly brought back for more. Room had to be made, with no time to spare, for the tables and chairs that would accommodate the people waiting outside, some already asking, even pleading, for the kitchen to begin serving dinner.

An Airplane Hanger Filled With Food

Most of the Community Kitchen's provisions come from a cavernous 90,000-square-foot space located in the Hunts Point Cooperative Market—a 60-acre food distribution center in the South Bronx.

Think of an airplane hanger filled with food.

In 1997, the New York Times reported the unnerving news that a city-wide rise in hunger had driven the amount of food the warehouse distributed from 2.5 million pounds a month early in the year to over 4 million pounds that October. Now, that massive number looks positively puny. "I distributed 7.2 million pounds last month," Brad Sobel, the director of warehouse operations, tells me.

On the day I dropped in at the Bronx site, so did a special donation of 576,000 eggs—two tractor-trailers full—that were offloaded into the warehouse's huge refrigerated room with remarkable speed.

576,000 eggs.

And yet within two weeks, according to Sobel, those eggs would be a distant memory—every last one distributed to the Community Kitchen and the other 1,000-plus food assistance programs the warehouse does its best to keep supplied in hungry times.

The need is never-ending, the turnover of food almost impossible for an outsider to grasp, and all of it happens in the vast space that lies behind plastic curtains separating the loading dock from a supermarket the likes of which you've never seen before. Instead of shoppers with carts, there are men on self-propelled riding pallet trucks and sit-down forklifts zipping about. On the floor are wooden pallets of produce. Plastic bags of potatoes, piled up to five-and-a-half-feet high. Fifty-pound bags of onions stacked on pallet after pallet. (I counted at least 11 of them.)

All around are huge metal shelves filled with pallets of plastic-wrapped cans, plastic tubs, jars, and boxes of food, some donated by food companies, some provided via federal government dollars through the Emergency Food Assistance Program, and some purchased wholesale by the warehouse. Cases of Princella canned sweet potatoes and Hormel cubed beef. Boxes of Parmalat milk. Cases of Peter Pan peanut butter. Cartons of Ralston Bran Flakes and Tasteeos cereal. An endless aisle of metal cans of Popeye-brand spinach, stacked and shrink-wrapped. Innumerable brown cardboard boxes filled with the maple-flavored oatmeal, Maypo.

"Donations are up," says Sobel, echoing voices from food banks across the country that have seen a similar rise in food donations as the economy has worsened. But need is also on the rise—and at a staggering pace.

Over the din of the warehouse—the horns, warning signals, and whirring motors of the flitting forklifts—there is the omnipresent steady hum of the cooling unit that keeps the refrigerated room at a constant 32 degrees, the deeper drone of the much colder freezer room's massive air conditioner, and the thumps and thuds of pallets of peanut butter and enriched long-grain rice being moved into place. Warehouse Manager Paul Rodriguez (no relation to Carlos) takes a moment from his mad day to explain how he and about 40 other workers offload trucks, sort and store the food, take orders from food assistance programs and the agencies they serve, fill the orders as needed—with the help of volunteers who donate their time to pack boxes—and ship them out to feed the needy across the five boroughs. "It's very rewarding," he says. "I love what I do."

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