A couple years ago, as the recession took hold, Myrna Cruz found herself watching a man checkout at a grocery store as he bought an enormous amount of cat food.
“And then you find out he doesn’t own any cats,” recalled Cruz.
The man, it turns out, was buying the cat food for himself. Cruz remembered the shock of learning that the man could not afford human-grade food after being turned down for food stamps. She gave him details to the Manna of Life food pantry where she works as Food Coordinator and urged him to come visit as soon as he could.
That man and many others who visit Manna of Life illustrate the urgent need for food assistance since the economic downturn in 2008. The Bronx, already New York’s poorest borough, was particularly hard hit. The number of total households in the South Bronx receiving food stamp assistance has risen steadily from just over 80,000 in 2007 to almost 120,000 in 2011 – an increase of almost 50% - according to the American Community Survey, a part of the U.S. Census. But even though the data shows a substantial increase in food stamp recipients, Cruz believes there are many more who are not receiving the assistance they need. More and more, she is seeing people who do not qualify for food stamps – some are employed, some receiving Social Security, but many cannot make ends meet. Eventually, they show up at a food pantry.
“We used to see the homeless and the destitute, now we’re seeing our neighbors, people we go to church with,” added Cruz.
The biggest shift, according to Cruz, is the number of employed people coming for assistance. She recalls one woman who qualified for only $16 of food stamps because she was working a low-wage job. The amount was not enough to cover her application costs.
Cruz has learned from stories like these not to ask too many questions. If someone asks for food, she says, that’s all she needs to hear. She fills bags with three days’ worth of supplies for each person that comes through the door, often taking only a name.
“They’re embarrassed,” said Cruz. “You pay your taxes, you pay your dues, and you can’t feed your family.”
For the staff at Manna of Life, which also runs a soup kitchen, the weak economy has really hit home. The organization’s statistics don’t tell the whole story because they moved in 2010 and shifted some of their services. But Lisa Rivera, Executive Director of Manna of Life, has a simple way of understanding their beneficiaries’ hardship: “It’s a lot of people we know.”
If the recession has increased the need for food assistance in the community, it has also decreased the supplies to meet that demand.
The days of full shelves are long gone and most weeks, the food is quickly distributed. “It’s flying off the shelves and we can’t stock it fast enough,” said Cruz, gesturing at the few jars and cans that sit on opposite ends of the spare steel shelves.
Erbin Colbian, founder and President of Manna of Life, said at first, community members tried to compensate. Even in 2010 people were donating more than ever despite the downturn because they knew the need was acute, Colbian said, but by 2011, those donations stopped coming in as the recession continued and people cut back even more. The downturn has forced the organization to seek other funding sources.
Since President Obama took office, the budget for the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) has almost doubled. The increase made it easier for organizations like Manna of Life to obtain grants to provide food assistance. In 2010, Manna of Life received about $8000 from TEFAP to keep the food pantry going. In 2011, they received about $5000. But this year, they didn’t receive any federal assistance at all. Colbian suspects the funding has run out from the original allocation but Manna of Life did not receive an explanation, he says.
Rivera, the Executive Director, remains hopeful that Manna of Life can continue its operations and even expand to other parts of the Bronx, where their services are much needed. An Obama re-election would help but Rivera believes reducing hunger isn’t a political issue.
“I would hope whoever wins that they would provide what we need to provide for others, “she said, “because regardless who wins, it doesn’t change the need.”