Council Member Rodriguez challenges federal cuts to SNAP

Ydanis Rodriguez, council member for northern Manhattan’s District 10 representing Washington Heights, says he knows what it means to rely on food stamps.  As a young Dominican immigrant in New York, in the late 1980’s Rodriguez spent four years of his twenties surviving on the federal assistance program. After twenty years of hard work, first as a taxi driver and then as a school teacher, Rodriguez, now an established leader in his community, might never have used food stamps again but for a recent challenge from the New York City Against Hunger Coalition (NYCAHC): to eat using only food stamps as a protest to recent federal cuts to the program.

For one work-week, Council Member Rodriguez and Joel Berg, Executive Director of NYCAHC, a coalition that represents over 1,200 non-profit soup kitchens and food pantries in New York City, ate on the current food stamp budget of $4.33/day for three days, and the reduced food stamp budget of $3.75/day, for two days, to draw attention to changes made to the federal food stamp program (renamed in 2008 the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP).

Effective April, 2014, SNAP will lose $11.9 billion of its budget, the result of a bill passed on August 10th by Members of the House of Representatives that will redirect the funds to provide $26.1 billion to help states with budget deficits that threaten public jobs and Medicaid.

As of June 10, 2010, New York State had over 2.8 million food stamp recipients, with more than half (about 1.76 million) living in New York City, according to the NYCAHC. And a recent report by the Food Research and Action Center cites 24.1 percent of the residents in the 15th congressional district, which includes Upper Manhattan, Riker’s Island and part of northwestern Queens, where Council Member Rodriguez lives and represents, as suffering from “food hardship” or “the lack of money to buy the food families need.”

“It is important that we raise our voice in solidarity for those who live with food stamps,” says Rodriguez. “They need more, not less — $4.30/day is not enough to eat quality food.”

To fulfill the challenge Rodriguez, who is conscientious of his own diet, bought a $3.00 bag of brown rice, the fixings for ham and cheese sandwiches, and “plátanos” (unripe plantains), and relied on the NYC Restoration Project’s community garden at Swindler Cove Park for subsidized produce; but, Rodriguez indicated, “for him it [wasn’t] a big problem” because he generally doesn’t eat much. What he missed the most was his morning cappuccino.

At the SNAP office in northern Manhattan, an imposing structure that sits astride 215th street station on the 1st train’s over-ground tracks, Rob Locust, who recently lost his job as a bouncer due to recession-related cutbacks and has been using food stamps for the past four months, scoffed at the council member’s experiment.  “For one week?” he laughed, “If he doesn’t need them, it’s different. I mean, he might as well give them to someone else.”

Certainly, there are those in need; gaps in the system leave others behind. Yolanda Jennings, who moved to New York from the Dominican Republic 17 years ago and does not speak any English, explained that due to the status of her residency she is illegible for SNAP, and instead must rely on her sister for her meals. “I’m dying of hunger,” Jennings sighed as she shuffled out of the center.

(Photo caption: Yolanda Jennings, a resident of New York City with Dominican citizenship who has not been granted the status she needs to receive SNAP, stands in front of the American flag and Albany’s flag at the center in northern Manhattan.)