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NY's food pantries say hunger is growing

Food pantries and soup kitchens say they are reluctantly becoming a permanent part of the nation’s safety net for the poor. In a new report on New York’s charitable food distribution system, the groups say it is government that needs to step in and lend a helping hand.

The survey finds the 560 food pantries and soup kitchens in New York are being squeezed by growing demand, dwindling donations, and even an aging of available volunteers to distribute the food.

Rev. Debra Jameson, who runs a food pantry and offers free breakfasts in downtown Albany, says the programs run by churches and other charitable groups were never meant to be a permanent solution.

“We continue to see ourselves as a temporary program even though it’s over 30 years old,” said Jameson. “We should not be the government’s first response to feeding people.”

Mark Dunlea, with the lobby group for the food pantries and soup kitchens, Hunger Action Network, says the current system of emergency food programs began in the early 1980s. That’s when then-President Reagan and Congress cut many government subsidies. The funding for housing and other federal programs has never been fully restored, he says. He says it’s normal now for New York’s poor to pay 60 to 70 percent of their income on housing, which leaves little money for food and other necessities.

The advocates say an increasing number of the guests who use the food pantries are elderly, and more are working at low wage jobs and cannot make ends meet.  More than one third are children.  

The advocates say while the food stamp program in New York is better funded than in most states, many find that extensive paperwork and documentation required is cumbersome.  They say many people who come to food pantries are eligible for food stamps, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, and they’d like changes in the application process to make it easier for people to sign up.

They are also asking Gov. Andrew Cuomo to increase funding for emergency food programs in his state budget by by $10 million more than the $29 million they currently receive.  

Dunlea says advocates are also disappointed that the governor and legislature did not hold a special session in December to raise the state’s minimum wage.

“We had hoped when we came here today we’d be congratulating the governor and the state Senate and the state Assembly for finally raising the minimum wage,” said Dunlea, who says he hopes when the legislature returns January 9 “it’s the first thing they do when they come back.”

But he says when the guests, as they are called, who use the food pantries and soup kitchens come in, there’s one thing they really want, above everything else:

“A job,” he said.

Dunlea says the federal and the state government could set up more public works projects, like in the 1930s. He says even a program putting people to work cleaning up damage from Superstorm Sandy would help alleviate some of the ever-growing need.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.