1 in 5 Westchester residents—roughly 200,000 of us—are hungry or at risk for hunger. How is that possible? And what are we doing about it?
On a cold, rainy Tuesday in Port Chester, the savory scent of beef stew wafts across the kitchen of a community center.
“Ladies first!” a volunteer calls out. A half-dozen elderly women shuffle to the front, while the others who have been waiting—white, Latino, and African American men of all ages—form a line behind them. Soon, almost 70 people are sitting communally in front of steaming trays of stew, yellow rice, soup, salad, and fruit. For some, this hot lunch will be their last meal until the next day.
Caritas of Port Chester, the nonprofit corporation that runs this soup kitchen, has been hopping since 7 am, when a light breakfast, catering to the day laborers, is served. “If they’re lucky enough to get a job, they should at least have a cup of coffee and a roll in their stomachs to go for the day,” says Caritas Board President Patricia Hart, who is also a volunteer. Later, a warm breakfast is served to others who don’t have work—some of them homeless. Others sitting in the warm kitchen can only afford to share living space, renting the use of an apartment, or even just a bed, for a few hours a day.
Meanwhile, in the center’s gymnasium, volunteers set up the food pantry. By the 9 am opening, the line is out the door and clients, many of them young mothers with small children, are choosing groceries, produce, and bread. Families also sort through free clothing and shoes, organized by size and gender on tables in the middle of the room.
At Caritas of Port Chester, hungry Westchester residents can get a warm breakfast or lunch and shop for groceries at its food pantry. For many, the lunch may be their last meal that day.
That same evening, 20 miles to the north, a busy distribution is unfolding at The Mount Kisco Interfaith Food Pantry. Dozens of clients in the waiting area listen as a visiting nutritionist stresses the importance of fresh fruits and vegetables. The timing is perfect: the Food Bank for Westchester delivered five huge pallets of fresh produce to the pantry that morning. Down the hall, eight women gather around an instructor who is talking about how to read food labels. The bilingual class is part of a free, onsite, eight-week nutrition course that Cornell Cooperative Extension presents at the pantry.
Many people visiting this pantry, located on the ground floor of a church, came directly from minimum-wage jobs in local supermarkets or pharmacies, others from outdoor labor. “Most people would be surprised to know that the vast majority of our clients have jobs,” says Ann Natale, past board president and longtime volunteer at the Mount Kisco pantry. “People are underemployed in part-time jobs with low pay or doing seasonal work. They’re chronically underemployed, and, so, chronically food-insecure.”
As families move through the food-distribution area, set up to simulate a grocery store, they pick up a bag of fresh produce before selecting non-perishable staples, eggs, frozen meats, and donated bread, with quantities based on the size of their household. The next morning, the pantry opens again, available for those who can’t make the evening hours.
Meanwhile, in Southwest Yonkers, an aging blue van is cruising through the city streets, delivering free groceries to people who can’t make it to a pantry. Among them that day are a woman with cancer, a woman with multiple sclerosis, and a blind man. Some recipients are elderly—too frail and sometimes too frightened to walk in their neighborhoods. Still others are single mothers who, as the end of the month approaches, have run out of food stamps—and food. The pantry delivery team is an eclectic mix: a retired police officer volunteering to coordinate the run and residents of Shepherd’s Flock, a homeless residence in the neighborhood. (See Special Delivery)
These three programs feed more than 2,000 people in any given week. And that’s only a tiny snapshot of both the need and the network of help sustaining people who are hungry in Westchester. The Food Bank for Westchester, the core of the effort to address local hunger, supports 300 community partners in the county. They range from tiny pantry closets open once a month to large soup kitchens that feed hundreds of men, women, and children each week.
Hunger in the Suburbs
If you live in certain parts of Westchester, it’s hard to wrap your head around the fact that so many people here don’t have enough to eat. How many? The Food Bank estimates that one in five residents are “food-insecure,” meaning they don’t always have enough money to buy adequate nutritious food. The figure—based on population, income levels, and cost of living in Westchester—means roughly 200,000 people in the county are hungry or at risk for hunger.
Actual numbers of people using feeding programs are harder to come by. In addition to food pantries and soup kitchens, the Food Bank supplies food for programs in senior centers, low-income childcare centers, and after-school programs. The Kraft Mobile Food Pantry, designed to reach “food deserts”—places where nutritious, affordable food is scarce—was launched in 2013 and is out almost every day. Tracking people who use multiple pantries is challenging, and there aren’t any agencies overseeing individual anti-hunger efforts in Westchester outside the Food Bank system. Under the Food Bank umbrella, 33 percent of people relying on feeding programs are children and 22 percent are seniors.
The Food Bank for Westchester is the nexus of hunger-relief efforts in the county, supporting many agencies that run feeding programs. Its Kraft Mobile Food Pantry (above) serves residents in areas where healthy food is scarce.
It’s also unclear where these patrons fall on the income scale. The Food Bank does not require feeding programs to means test, or set an income limit to qualify for food assistance. The accepted wisdom is that men, women, and children willing to line up in church basements, parking lots, or wherever else food is being distributed, are likely in need of it. Nor do most feeding programs look at who is receiving SNAP benefits (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps). But the majority of programs do limit how much food individual clients can receive, either by the size of their families, or the frequency of their visits, or both. Agencies also limit the catchment area they’ll serve.
Hunger is an increasingly suburban problem, says Ellen Lynch, president and CEO of the Food Bank for Westchester. Mirroring a national trend, most Westchester feeding programs—pantries, soup kitchens, and other outreaches—have transitioned from “emergency providers” to regularly supplementing residents’ diets. Lynch cites a Brookings Institute study revealing that since the year 2000, suburban poverty has increased by 65 percent, almost double the growth rate in urban areas.
As low-rent areas in New York City have become gentrified, poorer people have been pushed into bordering suburbs, Lynch explains. New immigration patterns also have an effect.
Traditionally, people immigrated to large cities. But today, many people arriving from other countries have family already settled in suburban areas. They’re moving directly into areas like Port Chester and Mount Kisco and tend to start at the bottom of the economic ladder.
Suburban seniors, many of them lifelong county residents, are a growing constituency of people using feeding programs, says Lynch. With the high cost of living in Westchester, the elderly on fixed incomes are struggling. Lynch also points to “transitional poverty”—often the people who never imagined needing help to feed their families.
“These are the folks who always worked, and made something like $58,000 a year, enough to have an apartment and a car,” Lynch says. “But they weren’t saving a whole lot. They were getting by. If they lose their jobs because of an economic downturn, they run through their savings in two months and move on to credit cards. Maybe they get a new job in six months, paying a little less, but now they also have a big credit card bill. And they’re in trouble. It happens very quickly to people you wouldn’t suspect.”
Lynch notes that the 2008 recession hit this group particularly hard. People who were making ends meet with second and even third jobs in the service sector—limousine drivers, waiters at country clubs—have not seen those jobs come back. Just three years after the economic crisis, white-collar unemployment had doubled from its pre-recession level, according to the Economic Policy Institute. And those who could get back into the work force often took lower-wage positions.
“We got hit so hard in 2008 and a lot of people never recovered from that,” adds Jeff Meyer, who runs food pantries in White Plains and Yonkers. “You know what I see? People who’ve always worked are really struggling. Let’s face it: When you live in Westchester County, and you’re making $10, $15 an hour, and your rent is $1,200 a month, how far does that go?”
Meeting the Need
How does the whole food distribution system work in Westchester? Scattered in geography, size, and resources, most pantries, soup kitchens, and student-backpack programs are part of a network working with the Food Bank for Westchester. The Food Bank itself occupies a 36,688-square-foot facility in Elmsford. It does not directly serve clients but is the source of 95 percent of the food that our local feeding programs use. In 2014, it provided agencies 7.6 million pounds of food, which translates into 6.3 million meals.
Most of that food isn’t free to feeding programs. But the Food Bank, one of eight in New York State, administers New York State grants to feeding agencies to defray their food purchases. And because the Food Bank buys in bulk at greatly reduced prices, the food in its warehouse is far cheaper than that at the grocery store. For every $1, the Food Bank can buy roughly $4 worth of food.
Where do feeding programs get their money? Contrary to what is often assumed, the government is only one of many sources of support. Many local agencies—particularly larger ones—fundraise in their own communities and rely on private donations. Some pantries and soup kitchens are supported by religious congregations. Local businesses also give, either with monetary or food donations. Better staffed agencies apply for grants to supplement the cost of food.
The 2008 recession hit the “transitional poverty” group particularly hard, rendering many in need of feeding assistance. “These are the folks who always worked and made something like $58,000 a year. But they weren’t saving a whole lot. … [Now] they’re in trouble. It happens very quickly to people you wouldn’t suspect.” —Ellen Lynch (above), president and CEO, Food Bank for Westchester
Once the food is purchased, it’s distributed throughout the county in church basements, community centers, storefronts, and anywhere else a program is based. On any given Friday in Westchester, someone is packing food into backpacks to give to school kids who might not otherwise have enough to eat over the weekend. Others are driving around their communities, delivering much-needed groceries. Still others are volunteering in pantries, handing out food they’ve bought with money they’ve raised from their own communities. Most feeding programs are independent and run by volunteers, though larger programs have some paid staff. Many pantries began small and have grown to respond to the increasing need.
“Every single one of these places has a story about how it started,” explains Lynch. “And it’s always a volunteer who has some compassion about somebody in that neighborhood and then connects with other like-minded people willing to give up their time. There’s no money hanging around. These are people who are going to get this work done no matter what.”
The Mount Kisco Interfaith Food Pantry is set up to mimic a grocery store; users can shop for fresh produce in addition to non-perishable staples. Free classes help educate clients—many of whom hold minimum-wage jobs—about nutrition.
The Changing Face of Hunger
The Great Hunger Memorial, commemorating the suffering of Irish people during the Potato Famine, sits in V.E. Macy Park in Ardsley. The figures are gaunt, and an overturned basket depicts potatoes turning into skulls. But that’s not what hunger looks like today. It may seem counterintuitive, but there’s a link between people who are food-insecure and people who are obese. Fresh produce and lean proteins tend to be the most expensive foods at the grocery store, and families who are struggling tend to buy cheap, but filling, foods that are starchy and fatty. Though they may look well fed, many people, particularly children, are missing vital nutrients to help them remain healthy and strong, says Lynch.
That’s why hunger-relief agencies in Westchester are putting such a strong emphasis on fresh produce, healthier choices, and nutrition education. “Easy, prepared food is so much less expensive,” says Maria Bronzi, chair of the board of directors at the Food Bank. Nutrition classes can help steer people away from heavily processed food, Bronzi notes. “That educational piece is so important," she says. The Food Bank has even launched its own farming program at five different sites. Other projects include a Senior Grocery Program, a BackPack Program, and a Kids Cafe Program, all with an eye toward getting nutritious food to the most vulnerable populations.
The Food Bank is also looking toward the future. Lynch worries about the aging network of volunteers who currently keep all those programs going and whether other residents will step up to replace them. She also knows feeding people is not enough. A growing focus in the industry is the idea of “Feed the Line; Shorten the Line.” That is, at the same time you don’t let people go hungry, you also try to encourage self-sufficiency through job training, education, and more, so that they’ll no longer need to be in that line.
Meanwhile, for those on the frontlines of fighting hunger, February may be the cruelest month. Charitable giving from the holidays has tapered off, and the “winter surge” is in full force. Seasonal workers have no income. Fuel costs force choices between heating and eating. And school closings mean kids don’t have access to reduced or free school lunches. Across Westchester, 34 percent of public-school students—or one in three—qualify for subsidized meals. But in cities like Yonkers, 77 percent of children are affected; in Port Chester, 52 percent.
“I don’t think people in Westchester realize that there are children who go home from school on Friday afternoons and will not eat again until Monday morning if we don’t provide food for them,” says Bronzi.
Feeding programs across the county have seen an increase in demand. And the divide between those who hand out food and those who receive it is not as large as you might imagine.
“The people who need help—it’s your next-door neighbor, and you don’t know it. It’s the person next to you in church who wears a nice suit who you wouldn’t suspect, but that person’s Social Security check doesn’t cut it,” says Meyer. “I’ve run into so many clients who’ve worked their whole lives that look at me and say, ‘I don’t know how I got here. I can’t believe I need a food pantry to survive.’”
Kate Stone Lombardi is a journalist and author. She is a long-time board member and volunteer at a food pantry in Northern Westchester