“We’re in a Tsunami”: Legislators Urge State Spending on Food Assistance

As food pantries struggle to meet surging demand with declining funds, legislators and providers say the state must offer more assistance.

Ari Dubow   ·   December 4, 2020
New Yorkers line up outside of a food pantry in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. | Akash Mehta

New York’s governor is sitting on untapped rainy day funds and unspent CARES Act funding that legislators and food providers say Governor Cuomo should use to feed hungry New Yorkers, as unemployment in the state hovers around ten percent, grocery prices rise and the state’s food insecure population has nearly doubled since the beginning of the pandemic.

“I don’t understand the logic,” Assemblymember Andrew Hevesi, who chairs the Assembly’s social services committee, said of the lack of state support for food pantries. “They’re waiting for a wave and we’re in a tsunami.”

Over 1.5 million New York residents didn’t have enough to eat in November, according to polling by the US Census Bureau. That number may climb higher after December 26, when over a million New Yorkers will lose unemployment benefits.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Sunnyside Community Services, a nonprofit in Queens, relied mostly on private donations to serve five meals each week in two locations.

In early November, Sunnyside slashed three of their five weekly meals due to declining funds. The week before Thanksgiving, it halted food service entirely. Judy Zangwill, the nonprofit’s executive director, estimated that the end of its food service leaves a thousand food insecure people each week to find food elsewhere.

“We’re so critical in terms of the safety net, but it seems that we are the first looked at in terms of cuts,” Zangwill said. “It feels like we’re lowest on the totem pole.”

On Wednesday, eight chairs of legislative committees issued a joint statement urging the governor to distribute CARES Act funds to support nonprofits that provide food assistance and other human services, as many other states have done.

One of the legislators who signed the statement asked the governor's budget office exactly how much CARES Act funding was left but did not receive a useful answer, a Democratic staffer said.

“They seem to be withholding funds that the state even does have — that the federal government has provided — as this sort of grand game of chicken,” said Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America.

“I think if [Cuomo] spends a couple of days and experiences firsthand the pain and trauma that my constituents and my colleagues’ constituents are going through, waiting for hours in the food pantry line—if he just waits in that line for a couple days, he’d have a change of heart,” Assemblymember Ron Kim said.

In addition to CARES Act funding, tens of millions of dollars held in the Empire State Economic Development Corporation Agency and other state agencies are sitting ready for use at the governor’s discretion, Kim added.

Asked for comment, the budget office referred New York Focus to a press conference this week in which Robert Mujica, the governor’s budget director, said that New York would fully allocate all CARES Act funding.

Food pantries and soup kitchens are typically sustained by private donors, alongside small federal and state grants. But as food pantries across the state are forced to cut back on service even as demand remains at record-high levels, some legislators and food providers argue they need state support.

“If you’re relying on private funding to do the job that government has a moral responsibility to do, you’re going to get in trouble. You can’t have private funding that comes consistently,” Hevesi said.

"We understand that demand for food pantries is growing which is why, even as the state contends with devastating revenue losses, we’ve used our resources to double the funding available for food pantries with the creation of Nourish New York. Through this innovative program, the state is connecting food banks with New York State farmers to deliver millions of pounds of dairy, fresh fruits and vegetables, meats and other food supplies to more than one million households so far," said Freeman Klopott, press officer for the budget office.

In October, dozens of state legislators sent Cuomo a letter asking that he allocate an additional $25 million to Nourish New York. Cuomo later allocated $10 million to sustain the initiative through the end of 2020.

“If we put enough pressure on him with a large enough coalition and really make the case publicly, he’ll acquiesce and start releasing the money,” Hevesi said. “I don’t believe he was going to have put 10 million into that program unless he got asked by the legislature.”

Food insecurity has devastated low-income communities around the state. 83 percent of low-income Bronx residents whose households lost employment income said that they received free food, went hungry or regularly skipped meals, according to a Community Service Society survey.

Before the pandemic, Good Neighbors Community Outreach Agency in the Bronx served around 300 families per week. That number jumped to 1400 in March and has stabilized at 1200 families per week ever since, according to the organization’s executive director, Reverend Gladstone Johnson.

Calls to the access referral line for The Food Pantries For The Capital District, a food pantry coalition, have increased by 1000 percent compared to 2019, according to CEO Natasha Pernicka. The lack of state support has left the group struggling to meet the increased demand, Pernicka said.

Frequently staffed by elderly volunteers, food pantries are hard pressed to distribute even the food they do have. Sister Maureen Joyce Food Pantry in Albany used to operate with 60 volunteers; over the months of the pandemic, their workforce has dropped to a regular rotation of five people, according to program coordinator Renee Wendover.

St. Peter’s Kitchen, a food pantry in Rochester, lost enough volunteers that in the spring that food pantry was forced to cancel a day of food service even as demand surged, according to Patty Lorenzen, the pantry’s executive director.

Community service nonprofits that have never before served food have reorganized to feed people. But the state’s nonprofits are also scraping their pockets following the governor’s withholding of 20 percent of nonprofit funding.

Michelle Jackson, Executive Director of the Human Services Council, a nonprofit that advocates for New York human services organizations, estimates that roughly 30 percent of the state’s nonprofits will close in the near future.

“We have seen over the course of the Cuomo administration a real disregard, to be honest, for the human services sector,” Jackson said. She pointed to state agencies’ consistently late payments to non-profits, and said Cuomo has refused to employ the cost of living adjustment for human services workers’ pay.

He’s pretending to be fiscally responsible," Hevesi said, "but what he’s wound up doing is every crisis that we’re facing—whether it’s an opioid epidemic, a lack of child care, a homeless crisis—every one of those crises, he’s withheld funding to solve those problems.”

Aviva Waldman contributed reporting.

Ari Dubow is a contributing editor at New York Focus.
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