Tackling food insecurity on the rise in New York

Advocates and experts weigh in on the growing epidemic

Image courtesy of Queens Defenders Olla Comun Kitchen

As over 115 million Americans traveled during the holidays, many of us spent the season over-indulging on food. But for those facing food insecurity, the holidays can be a demoralizing reminder of the challenges they face. 

With the end of pandemic era food assistance programs, the number of food insecure New Yorkers has increased at an alarming rate. Rising food and living costs, displacement and unsteady employment all factor in the circumstances of nearly 2 million hungry New Yorkers, 596,060 being children. As the city grapples with the ongoing migrant crisis, advocates and experts have weighed in on the growing food epidemic and potential solutions to mitigate the crisis. 

“There are many factors that can push a family into food insecurity: the rising cost of groceries due to inflation, low wages or income lost during the pandemic, food benefit programs and social assistance that were cut back,” Rachel Sabella, director of No Kid Hungry New York told New York Nonprofit Media. “The latest data from the USDA tells us all these factors are putting more kids at risk of hunger.”

“In 2022 alone, we saw the number of families facing food insecurity jump 40 percent. Inflation has made a bad situation worse,” Sabella explained. “Families are now finding it harder to afford groceries and put food on the table. According to our 2023 poll of New York families, nearly 3 in 4 New Yorkers reported it was harder to afford groceries this year than last.” 

As food insecurity is most felt by families with children, Sabella continued that the problem spans rural and urban communities alike, with families once considered economically secure increasingly feeling pressure. 

“Middle income New Yorkers are not immune. Thirty five percent of respondents from No Kid Hungry’s 2023 poll shared that despite having annual household incomes between $50,000 and $100,000, they were experiencing one or more symptoms of food insecurity,” Sabella said. “A Finger Lakes respondent shared, ‘We’re in a two-income household with a combined salary of $80,000 a year and are still living paycheck to paycheck because of the cost of food, increase on the price of gas, electric, utilities, health insurance and child care. This is not sustainable.’”

Among disenfranchised groups, homeless populations and migrants increasingly struggle with food insecurity, while bearing the added pressure to find housing with the end of New York’s “right to shelter” mandate. 

Long-time public legal advocacy organization Queens Defenders recently opened a food distribution hub, Olla Comun Kitchen, serving hot meals to migrants in Far Rockaway, Queens, in addition to their food pantry in Jamaica. The Kitchen serves anywhere between 100 to 600 people per week, half of them children, and with currently over 75% of people served being shelter residents with little access to fresh food and proper winter clothing. 

“Currently, based on the numbers that we have, almost 70% of the people that we're serving are from one of the shelters either around Far Rockaway or throughout the city, mostly shelter individuals,” founder and CEO Lori Zeno said. 

“These poor people had sandals and flip flops on. They had no coats. It was cold last Monday and the line was around the corner and they were standing in line with no coats,” she continued. “There was a couple where they had a baby where the father had taken his sweatshirt off, which is all the father had but he took it off to cover the baby. So he was literally standing outside with just a shirt and a pair of pants.”

In addition to providing winter coats and boots to children and adults, the Kitchen gives volunteers the opportunity to cook traditional recipes, often restoring a sense of agency to disenfranchised families who are often prohibited from cooking or bringing hot food to shelters. 

“What ended up happening is we were told they couldn't bring the food into the shelter. So we went to this place called the mint. It's a fleabag motel across the street from the train station in Far Rockaway, and they've turned it into a shelter," Zeno said. “It’s a four-floor hotel. They have in the lobby, a table with two microwaves on it. And that's what people use to cook. They all share two microwaves to cook something.”

Previously unregistered, the conditions displayed at the Mint Hotel were examples of the lack of proper management in emergency migrant shelters. 

“We walked down the hall. It was disgusting. garbage everywhere. The smell was horrible. Kids running up and down the hallway,” said Zeno. “There's no security there. It's just this roach infested motel and, and then I could see in the corner, they must be giving them a box of what was a three-day supply [of food].”

As the Kitchen hopes to expand their efforts with neighboring food banks, Zeno urged community leaders and nonprofits to organize collaborative efforts like food pantries, to help migrants and the city’s displaced populations. 

“What's the obstacle? They don't care enough,” Zeno said. “They're going to tell you that they don't have the money, the food or a place to feed people. But you know what, seriously, it did not take a genius. Go buy food, cook it and feed them. It's as simple as that.”

Some are picking up the mantle to fill these gaps. West Side Campaign Against Hunger, a “customer-choice supermarket-style” food pantry is led by CEO Greg Silverman who aims to dignify his clients by providing nutritious and culturally appropriate foods to marginalized populations. 

“The general model for fighting hunger in America is to give out pounds of food. And that doesn't help anyone in the big picture. So about 52% of our food is fresh produce. So if you're getting 30 pounds of food from us, over 15 pounds is fresh produce,” he said. “If you're not trying to help people with their underlying health conditions, you're doing long-term damage. We won't hand out unhealthy products. We want our customers to get the best because they deserve it.”

Following an overwhelming rise in demand during the pandemic, the nonprofit opened a new food storage warehouse in Washington Heights, where a high concentration of clients live. 

“This [new] warehouse [in Washington Heights] is about 14,000 square feet, about 4,000 of which is administrative, so [there’s space for] desks and meeting rooms for our 30 person staff,” Silverman explained. “And then 10,000 square feet is the warehouse and dock. So we have internal docks, where trucks can come in and out really efficiently.” 

“We have an 800 square foot walk in cooler that can hold about 50 pallets of fresh produce,” he added. “Our previous walk-in cooler, at 86th street, can hold two to three pallets. So just giving us the physical space to distribute food more efficiently across our network of 30 distribution points.” 

The campaign has since expanded its community outreach to better mobilize distribution points and meet struggling populations. By providing high quality products, tailored to the cultural and culinary needs of disenfranchised people, these services remain central to rejuvenating health and social mobility to struggling families. 

“Food insecurity is a systemic issue that can happen to anyone. It’s not a personal failure,” Sabella said. “According to USDA’s Elevating Voices Report, people facing hunger are grappling with problems like the high cost of living, expensive housing, unemployment, and jobs that fail to provide a living wage. Marginalized communities, including people of color, LGTBQ individuals, and those with disabilities, are at higher risk of food insecurity due to systemic discrimination and poverty.”

As a systemic issue that affects a wide range of New Yorkers, Silverman stressed the need for a shift in language in the way we describe homeless populations:

“We changed our mission because some of that language existed in our mission that was just kind of objectification, like a sort of “us and them,” like those givers and receivers. And that's not what it's about. It's about community,” he told NYN Media. 

As food remains an essential element of equity, with a lack of access potentially harming the health, education and future prospects of entire communities – advocates urge local leaders to take bipartisan action. 

“Ending food insecurity is not just about people just getting enough calories. It’s about ensuring every child can rely on healthy food at home, at school and in their community,” Sabella said. “Too many families live in food deserts where there are simply no supermarkets with fresh produce and foods nearby, making healthy food all but impossible to find.”

“Overwhelmingly, New Yorkers are looking for leaders to take action and address the hunger crisis in the state,” Sabella added. “Nine in 10 New Yorkers want their elected officials to work on a bipartisan basis to do more to eliminate childhood hunger.”