It’s about 3 p.m. on a muggy Tuesday afternoon, and just past the blue scaffolding that encloses the Word of Life International Church, a long line of people is accompanied by a colorful assortment of push carts. The crowd wraps around the corner of 160th and Union Streets.
They have been waiting for the church’s food pantry to open since 1:30 p.m. Word of Life International’s pastor, John Udo-Okon, said that he expects to serve at least 200 to 300 people during the program’s operations on Tuesdays and Thursdays. It’s a small number compared to the estimated 800 people that come to the pantry on Saturdays, he said. He began the Feed the Community program in 2003. In a neighborhood of the city well known for its high poverty rate, this food assistance program represents one of the ways in which local organizations are tackling the economic issues that plague the community.
“Number 53, 54,” shouts a volunteer as she hustles the crowd along. Thirty-one-year old Yamali Encarnacion was given ticket number 45, but she didn’t come back to the line in time, and ended up losing her place.
“My fridge is in critical condition and I’ve got two kids to feed,” said Encarnacion. The local resident and mother of two said that she had been standing on lines since 12 p.m. Her feet, she said, were killing her. September 30 marked the first time she had ever been to a food pantry. Encarnacion said that she was initially resistant to ask for food, due to pride, but realized that everybody needs help at some point in life. She said that she recently started a job and wouldn’t receive her paycheck until Friday.
“I feel relief that my kids have things to eat,” said Encarnacion. “Now I know what my mom used to go through. This is where she used to get food from. I remember she used to come home with the big block of welfare cheese.”
It turns out that quite a number of local residents are relying on welfare. According to the latest statistics released by New York City’s Department of Planning in 2013, about 66 percent of the population in Bronx Community District 1, which includes Melrose, Mott Haven, and Port Morris, relied on governmental income support, including cash assistance, supplemental security income, and Medicaid. NYU Furman Center’s 2013 State of New York City’s Housing and Neighborhoods report showed that the median family income for the total population of the Bronx was an estimated $33,000, less than half the median income in New York City as a whole.
“We want to move beyond social services and focus more on economic empowerment,” said Rev. Udo-Okon. In addition to the food program, he said that he is working in conjunction with Green Worker Cooperatives to establish businesses that are run by community members, which will result in income generated by and for local residents. “We will defeat poverty not just by giving food, but by introducing programs that will improve overall well-being,” he said.