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Brooklyn Food Pantries and Soup Kitchens Cope With Increased Demand

More Brooklynites than ever are hungry.

A report by the New York City Coalition Against Hunger — released against a backdrop of borough families preparing for Thanksgiving, a holiday characterized by an abundance of food — reveals that close to 90 percent of food pantries and soup kitchens in the borough are experiencing an upsurge in demand as the recession lingers. Yet, of the five boroughs, only Manhattan had a smaller percentage of providers reporting an increase in demand, with the largest increase being reported on Staten Island.

Nonetheless, according to the report, NYC Hunger Catastrophe Avoided (For Now), the borough’s residents are clearly feeling the pinch. Most affected, according to the coalition, are families with children. There was an increase of 58.7 percent, boroughwide, in the number of families with children requesting food. Close behind are the elderly; the number of them requesting food at food pantries and soup kitchens in the borough increased 45.2 percent.

Frighteningly, there is not enough food to go around. The coalition reported that 49 percent of food pantries and soup kitchens in the borough that responded to the survey were forced to ration the victuals they provided in some fashion, either by turning applicants away, or by limiting the quantity of food that individuals could receive, or by cutting operating hours.

“There is an increase in the demand of food items,” reported Bruce Johnson, the assistant director of the program at the Ebenezer Seventh-Day Adventist Church on East New York Avenue. “There is also a need for fresh vegetables so that an adequate nutrition can be provided.”

Tom Neve, the director of Reaching Out Community Services, which has a food pantry in Bensonhurst, says that more people than ever before are turning to the 17-year-old organization for help getting food for their families, and that they have had to reduce the number of times that some of their clients can get food from twice a month to once a month.

“I’ve never seen such a dramatic increase as in the last year and a half,” Neve told this paper. “It’s been unbelievable. It’s very sad.”

Not only has the number of clients increased, Neve added, but there has been a shift in who is requesting food. While, previously, the vast majority of Reaching Out’s clients were the elderly and people living on a fixed income, “Now, they are the minority,” Neve reported.

In the month of November, 2009, Neve said, Reaching Out provided food to 602 senior citizens. In that same month, he went on, the organization also served 2,229 adult clients, and 1,676 children.

“Our clients are basically young or middle-aged adults who are either unemployed or are now working for minimum wage, because people are taking what they can get, when it comes to jobs, or people on disability,” Neve said.

Yet, he added, it’s harder to get the necessary supplies, with donations down and grant money more difficult to get, though at this time of year, there is more available. Around the holiday season, Neve said, people are “charitable. They don’t realize it’s Thanksgiving every day, here.”

One bright spot on the hunger horizon comes courtesy of Washington, D.C., thanks to an increase infederal funding tied to the economic stimulus program as well as an increase in the Food Stamp Program, according to Joel Berg, the coalition’s executive director.

“The economic downturn has created a hurricane of suffering for hungry New Yorkers, but the good news is that a massive increase in federal funding has provided a food life-raft for struggling families,” stressed Berg.“While it is obviously appalling that more than half of the feeding programs in the city still need to ration food, the situation is far less catastrophic than it would have been had the president and Congress not increased anti-hunger funding in the recovery act and had not protected the Food Stamp Program as an entitlement that expands when times are rough.”

The coalition’s report was based on responses to a survey it distributed to agencies involved in distributing food to the poor. In Brooklyn, 80 out of 341 agencies contacted responded to the survey.

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