Thursday, November 12, 2009

L.I.C. pantry faces soaring demands

nys unemployment insurance

Rising unemployment and underemployment have forced many residents of Long Island City to seek food assistance. Food pantries, which provide free groceries to those in need, are trying to keep up with the rising demand but feel overwhelmed by the number of new clients.

The city’s unemployment rate stood at 10.3 percent in September, compared to 6 percent in September 2008.

Christy Robb, who runs Hour Children’s Food Pantry at 36-49 11th St., says the numbers have jumped by more than a third.

“We’re getting literally about 30 to 40 new people every week,” Robb said. “I mean, I’m getting a little freaked out because it’s hard for me to know how I’m going to keep up.”

The pantry, which is open two days a week, had been planning on having a third day for seniors, but the idea has been put on hold for fear of not having enough supplies to meet the demand. Between 2 and 4:30 p.m. on a recent November afternoon, the pantry had already served 115 individuals.

Facilities such as Hour Children’s Food Pantry distribute mostly canned foods, rice, pasta, frozen vegetables and juices. Robb’s pantry is a “client choice” pantry where people can choose one or two items per food group and usually leave with a bag of nine to 10 items. Other pantries often distribute prepackaged bags.

Hour Children’s Food Pantry receives support through the city’s Human Resources Administration, the New York State Department of Health via United Way and the federally funded Emergency Food and Shelter Program, among others.

Pantries apply for grants and then file records online once a month. Donor agencies can access the records and determine how much funding to allocate to the applicant depending on its size.

But Robb says obtaining funding to meet the demand is a “rollercoaster and very, very stressful.” She has already had to cut services by limiting households to three visits per month — down from four.

While she says it is still possible to find funding for supplies, it’s hard to come up with the money to hire staff. The pantry relies on volunteers and only has one paid employee, who makes $8 an hour.

Many of those who visit her pantry would be happy to make that kind of money full-time. Robb, who has more than 20 years experience in social work, says she has never seen so many part-time workers turning to pantries for help.

Katrina Walters is one of them. The single mother of three lost her full-time job as an after-school program coordinator for the Supportive Children’s Advocacy Network last year. She visits the pantry once a week to supplement the items she buys with food stamps.

“Right now with the way the economy is going and the job situation, it kind of supplements what I already have and what I can get, like pasta and sauces,” she said. “It’s a really big help. A really big help.”

Walters works part-time whenever she can find employment. She was hired at a beauty supply shop for Halloween but is unsure of what employment she will have in the future.

“With my experience I’ve been able to find jobs, customer service, data entry, like no problem, but the last, honestly, 12 months, it’s been rough,” she said. “It’s really been rough.”

Walters’ case is far from unique. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal-leaning think tank, in 2007 more than twice as many households on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, worked as relied solely on welfare benefits. For every additional dollar food stamp recipients earn, their benefits only decline by 24 to 36 cents, which serves as an incentive for people to work.

SNAP is a federal assistance program available to people and families with little or no income. This year, through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the Obama administration and Congress increased benefit allotments, and Walters says the extra money has helped.

“Ever since Obama has been in office they’ve been giving like more, every month, more, a few bucks here and there but it works,” she said. “I’ve been finding that I’ve been okay. I’ve been able to utilize it.”

The Food Research and Action Center, a nonprofit organization which works on hunger in the United States, says that, in fiscal year 2008, there were on average almost 2 million individuals in New York State participating in SNAP on a monthly basis. That number represents an increase of nearly 36 percent over five years. The average monthly benefit per person was $109.78.

Robb of Hour Children says pantries do more than just hand out food. Her group, for instance, offers free legal representation, specializing in public assistance, food stamps and rent arrears.

She processes a truck driver who says he recently lost his job and health insurance with it. She gets him to fill out paperwork and informs him of what other services he might benefit from.

“It’s actually the first point that many people enter into a social service agency, so it’s actually crucial in engaging them and getting some trust going,” she said.

Ellen Vollinger, the legal and food stamp director at FRAC, says “food pantries play important roles not only in providing families with bags of food … but in connecting them with SNAP/Food Stamps that can provide them with many meals for sustained periods of time.”

But Robb fears she may have to stop accepting new members in the future.

“I’m not sure what we’re going to do,” she said. “I can’t just continue to support that many new people in addition to everyone that’s already coming in here, and so that’s got me kind of worried.”