Benny Velazquez, 40, lines up with a food cart in front of the pantry at St Benedict the Moor Neighborhood Center on St Anne’s Avenue, South Bronx. He arrived early so he could grab a hot lunch from the soup kitchen while he waited for his turn at the food pantry. Velazquez lost his job as a construction worker two years ago and hasn’t been able to get back on his feet. His wife works full-time at a grocery store, but her income is not enough to feed them both.
“We were barely making ends meet when I had a job,” says Velazquez. “It has been a difficult few years without money, but even if both of us were earning we would have had to still seek food assistance from the pantries.”
According to a survey conducted by the Food Research Action Center, an organization that works to end hunger, Velazquez’s problem is not unique: in 2009, 37 percent of people in New York’s 16th congressional district, which encompasses the South Bronx, lacked the money to buy food. Velazquez and his wife also represent one household of the 60 percent of New York homes with annual incomes of less than $25,000 that could not afford to buy enough food last year, says a study done by the Food Bank for New York City, an anti-hunger group.
“A few years ago our clients used to be those who were in the shelters, drug addicts and the homeless, but recently we are seeing more and more of those families where one or more than one person is employed full-time,” says Anthony Jordan, President and Chief Executive Officer of St. Benedict the Moor Neighborhood Center. “More middle class families are coming to the hot food kitchen and pantry seeking food assistance; this did not happen before.”
In its 2009 report, the Food Bank of NYC says almost one in every five emergency food sites (18 percent) saw the number of employed individuals accessing emergency food increase by 25 percent or more.
Jordan says that more than half of the people who seek food assistance from the pantry are repeat clients. “They can’t seem to get out of a situation where they can’t afford food,” he says. “We feed 300 people everyday but we have to turn people away everyday, sometimes as many as 20 hungry people.”
Hunger experts say to solve the problem of food insecurity in the South Bronx, the focus should be long-term, sustainable solutions. “Soup kitchens and food pantries are not the solution against hunger, they are just temporary alternatives to a bigger problem,” says Emanuel Hickson, a former client of St. Ann’s Episcopal Church food pantry who now serves on the Board of the church.
Food security advocates caution, however, that although employment and hunger are directly related, just providing jobs to the unemployed is not enough.
“People may have full time jobs, but they are still below the poverty level because they are getting paid minimum wage,” says Liz Gilbert, Organizer at Hunger Action Network for New York State, an anti-hunger coalition. She says if New York wants to put an end to hunger it needs to either raise the minimum wage or work towards passing living wage legislation. Living wage is an hourly wage paid above the federal minimum for an extended period of time, to help meet basic needs, including housing, clothing and nutrition.
“Living wage should be enacted on businesses that receive government funding and are on state contracts,” says Millard ‘Mitty’ Owens, executive director of the HOPE Program, a New York-based organization that conducts job training and does research on unemployment. Owens adds that providing jobs is necessary, but that they will have no meaningful impact on poverty if the wages are insufficient. According to the US Department of Labor there are14 states (plus DC) where minimum wage is already higher than the federal minimum. New York City Council has introduced the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act, which ensures that developers who receive major taxpayer-funded subsidies must pay $10 an hour, but it is yet to become legislation.
Back on St. Ann’s Avenue in South Bronx, Velazquez gets ready to leave. As he packs up his cart with canned food from the pantry he says, “My wife and I have enough to eat for a few days. I will go to another pantry if we run out, but who knows what happens after that.”