A Tsunami of Hunger: Is New York City About to Be Overwhelmed?

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 Timesreported 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."

Rodriguez explains that they try to send the bulk of the fresh produce they receive to sites like the Community Kitchen in Harlem and other soup kitchens, where meals are served for the hungry, as opposed to food pantries where the needy shop for staples. "We'll send them onions, romaine lettuce, a variety of produce. We don't want to just send onions just because we've got 20,000 onions. We'll make sure we send a mixed pallet of produce with, say, six different types of produce -- bananas, apples, cabbage, and other fruits and vegetables."

A former serviceman who still retains his straight-backed military bearing and runs a tight ship in the warehouse, Rodriguez remembers a childhood in which his family sometimes faced food insecurity. "We're in the business of feeding the hungry," he explains, "feeding a lot of families. The way the economy is, it's unfortunate. More and more people are losing their jobs, and more and more people are struggling to make ends meet."

White-Collar Hunger

Even some of those managing to hang onto their jobs are having trouble feeding themselves. Evidence of it is crystal clear in Harlem where white-collar workers, sometimes still clad in dressy clothes, are beginning to join construction workers as the new faces on the soup kitchen line

Some need the food just to get through their job searches. Jesse Taylor, the Community Kitchen's senior director, recalls a recent morning when a man appeared at the front door. "He was dressed really well. A shirt with a collar," Taylor recalled. The man asked, "Do you have anything for me to eat?" but was told the Kitchen wouldn't be open for dinner until four in the afternoon.

As Taylor remembers it, "He said, 'I've only been in town for a couple weeks. I'm from California. I'm living in a shelter right now. I'm homeless and trying to find work. I'd like to come back at four, but I don't know where I'll be. I hope to have a job by then. Can you give me anything? Anything at all?'"

"We made him up a quick sandwich," Taylor adds.

And that early morning job-hunter isn't atypical these days. Taylor points to "a huge increase in the number of children and seniors in the soup kitchen line, as well as quite a few people in business attire. They usually come in one time in their dress clothes." The next day, they're back dressed to better blend in with the others in line who are homeless or, as Taylor puts it, "carrying their whole world on their back."

That night, I saw no dressy clothes in the line for dinner, but I certainly noticed men in work boots and teenagers as well. Behind the small glass counter in the cozy, cream-colored dining room, nine young volunteers -- mostly women -- in hairnets and latex gloves moved briskly to keep the assembly line of food going. They were lining up trays with servings of either ham or meatloaf next to mashed potatoes, cabbage stew, an apple, a piece of bread or a roll, a slice of cake, and a cup of purple fruit juice.

This scene is repeated Monday through Friday (with breakfasts on Tuesday and Thursday mornings), and this night the crowd was eager, moving through the room and then eating with purpose. As the first batch of folks filtered out, those waiting moved forward to take a tray as the volunteers filled plate after plate. The day I was there, staff kept up with demand, but will they be able to keep up if the economic crisis grinds on?

"What Can We Do?"

The line for the soup kitchen is only one of two queues that form in front of the Harlem site. Four days a week, a second line heads in the other direction, toward Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, leading to the food pantry that adjoins the Community Kitchen. On this day, the pantry opened at 1 pm and, three hours later, the line was still there, mostly women, leaning on their own folding metal shopping carts in which they would haul their groceries home.

Via a short stairwell, a few shoppers at a time are allowed into a surprisingly small but well-stocked, supermarket-style room with a checker-board linoleum floor. There, they find metal shelves filled with pasta, hot and cold cereals, canned vegetables and fish or meat (including tuna, salmon and mackerel, chicken chunks, and beef with gravy), as well as fresh vegetables, a freezer of frozen meat, and a refrigerator full of skim milk and ricotta cheese.

After showing proof of New York residency (a piece of current mail will do) and family size (a report card, for example, for each child), one member of a household can shop at the pantry once a month. "In effect, we're a bridge to help folks get through, especially since food stamp benefits generally run out after the second week of the month," says Taylor.

Some of the same items I had seen up at the Bronx warehouse (Maypo and the Princella sweet potatoes, for instance) appeared to be in heavy supply as an older African-American woman and a fragile-looking young Hispanic mother with a shy child filled their miniature metal shopping carts.

The food never stays on the shelves for long. "We're seeing 100-150 families a day. They can easily wipe out everything you see on the shelves here," says Taylor.

Keeping those shelves full isn't easy. Despite Sobel's somewhat rosy assessment, Carlos Rodriguez notes that, even before the recent economic meltdown, a Food Bank survey showed demand increasing 24% and donations, at least by comparison with need, beginning to slide. In the time since, the deleterious effects of the economic meltdown have been abetted by the problems of a globalized food market and the effects of climate change, both creating ripples from Asia to Harlem.

"Over the last year," says Rodriguez, "we had some droughts in different parts of the world that drove up food prices... The price of rice was ridiculous over the last summer, so there was shortage of rice and other grains."

At the same time, increased efficiency by food manufacturers, whose overproduction has always been an important source of food bank and pantry donations, is having a grave impact. Increasingly, they are often making no more than they can sell. Even when they still do overproduce, Rodriguez notes, "we're in a global market environment, so they're finding alternative places to sell their surplus. What does that translate into? Less donations for food banks."

As has been true for food banks all over the country, the global economic crisis has spurred a rise -- whether temporary or not no one knows -- in food donations, which has helped offset some of the pressures the Food Bank for New York City is now experiencing. If, however, charitable foundations continue to buckle under the stresses of the deepening depression and philanthropic foundations cut back on their grants even as businesses shrink their charitable giving, that tsunami of hunger Carlos Rodriguez fears may be heading for New York.

"It's a very difficult time," says Bronx Warehouse Manager Paul Rodriguez. "We do whatever we need to do to make sure people have a little something warm in their bellies. That's what we're in the business of doing. We try to make it happen. But we can't make it happen if we don't have food on the shelves."

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. As of now, the lines on 116th Street keep getting longer, while more construction boots and kids' shoes shuffle into the Community Kitchen each weeknight. If demand spikes by two million or even a significant fraction of that, the result could be a catastrophe. "If we have an empty warehouse," Paul Rodriguez asks, "what can we do?"

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