By Michael V’inkin Lee
The storage shelves at Project Hospitality’s Bay Street food pantry are almost bare. Three cardboard trays of canned fruit, some boxes of dry cereal, and a few straggling loaves of bread are all that is left in the main pantry after the morning rush to help Staten Island’s hungry and needy.
“We open at 9 a.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays and people are lining up at 5:30 a.m.,” said Tony Dragone. “I get here and people are already lining up to get food. The way things are it’s very bad.”
Project Hospitality’s Community Service Center at 514 Bay Street in the neighborhood of Stapleton has been experiencing a steady decline in food stocks for months. Incoming donations plateaued in the past year, but the growing number of needy Staten Islanders looking for food assistance is quickly outpacing the center’s resources. Although the pantry is in no immediate danger of being forced to turn people way empty-handed, the near-empty shelves and half-stocked storerooms are ominous signs.
According to a study released by the Food Bank for New York City, 61 percent of Staten Islanders had difficulty affording food in 2010, the highest among New York’s five boroughs. Staten Island’s nine percent – and rising – unemployment rate and an economy that is showing no signs of improving have compromised food security in the borough. The study found that 25 percent of Staten Islanders reduced their food intake due to financial circumstances and 36 percent ate food of lower nutritional quality. Nearly a quarter surveyed had to choose between eating and paying their bills.
Project Hospitality is Staten Island’s largest provider of food, social, and shelter services to low-income families and individuals. It operates a number of food pantries and soup kitchens in the borough. The organization also runs mobile pantries to serve those who cannot make the journey to its neighborhood facilities.
“We started noticing that food was flying, just flying off the shelves about a year ago,” said Dragone, 46, who has been volunteering at the Bay Street pantry and soup kitchen five days a week, eight hours a day, for the last four years. He is frustrated by the lack of donations outside of the holiday season when pantries traditionally receive the biggest boost to their inventories.
“People’s hearts open up around Christmas and Thanksgiving,” he said. “I’m not talking bad or nothing, but there are also 10 other months in the year.”
He said that the faltering economy and state budget cuts have taken a toll on the center’s ability to provide services to its clients. Project Hospitality is part of the Food Bank for New York City’s network of assistance organizations and receives contributions from the Food Bank to supplement private donations.
The Food Bank and pantries like Project Hospitality’s Community Service Center are also facing financial pressure from the federal government. The US House Appropriations Committee voted in May of this year to cut $63 million in funding from The Emergency Food Assistance Program. The bill is currently awaiting a vote in the Senate. If passed, the Food Bank for New York City is expected to lose up to a sixth of its food supply.
Dragone already feels the belt tightening at the pantry and soup kitchen. Sharpening declines in food stocks are forcing the center to give out fewer items with occasional substitutions.
“We give them meat as a protein, whether it’s canned meat or frozen meat,” Dragone said. “But today we’re giving out beans as a protein because we don’t have any [meat].”
The Bay Street pantry and soup kitchen is barely keeping up with demand. Dragone said that food supplies delivered to the center every Thursday are almost depleted by the following Tuesday.
There has also been a sizable increase in the number of soup kitchen patrons. Dragone cooks for the center in addition to his work with the food pantry section. He estimates that he now caters to around 180 people every time the kitchen is open, a jump from previous figures of 100 to 120 clients.
Eunice Hodges, 72, is known affectionately to the other volunteers as Miss Eunice. She has worked at the Bay Street pantry for 11 years and only takes a day off every year for her birthday. Hodges finds the center’s dwindling resources and its responsibilities to an ever-expanding list of clientele disheartening.
“This is the absolute worst I’ve seen here,” she said. “The amount of food we have to work with is getting lower and lower and the number of people we need to serve is getting higher and higher. There’s only so much volunteers can do until we’re overwhelmed.”
Nevertheless, Dragone believes that things will pick up again as the holiday season approaches. He said that his resolve as a volunteer remains unshaken, but admits to moments when he feels powerless to help the needy beyond providing a hot meal and just enough take-home food to last three days.
“I love helping people, but it does bother me when there’s nothing I can do,” said Dragone. “Sometimes you see the look on their faces and it’s not a nice feeling.”