Hunger on the Rise in New York City

Wages are not keeping up with the notoriously high cost of living in New York City. Food bank workers say they're seeing more working families, single women with children and immigrants.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

It's the holiday season, a time when so many people volunteer that they are sometimes turned away by soup kitchens and charities. But the rest of the year, groups that help the hungry are strapped for volunteers and money.

While the number of people facing the threat of hunger has been stable or marginally decreasing in many parts of the country, NPR's Margot Adler reports in New York City the numbers are rising.

MARGOT ADLER: Here are some odd statistics. Forbes magazine says the number of billionaires in New York City nearly doubled this year to 45. The richest person has more assets than the combined annual income of all 1.8 million New Yorkers living at or below the poverty level. Joel Berg is the executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, and he's full of those kinds of numbers.

Mr. JOEL BERG (New York City Coalition Against Hunger): When we tell people that one in six New Yorkers face hunger and food insecurity, they just don't believe it. But the reality is, one in five New Yorkers face poverty. If about one in five New Yorkers, about 1.8 million New Yorkers, face poverty, it really shouldn't be shocking to people that 1.2 million New Yorkers, or one in six, face the threat of hunger.

ADLER: Joel Berg also offers this little shocker. In 1980, there were 35 soup kitchens and food pantries in the city, most of them conforming to the stereotype, helping men on skid row who were often homeless, sometimes mentally ill, sometimes substance abusers. Now there are 1200 such organizations in the city, distributing 68 million pounds of food a year - to working families, single women with children, immigrants, the elderly and the disabled. Only 10 percent of them are homeless. New York City has one of the highest costs of living in the country. Wages aren't keeping up with expenses, and food, says Berg, is the one place that's easy to cut back.

Mr. BERG: You can't pay your landlord less. You can't pay the child care provider less. But you can buy less food or you can buy less expensive food.

ADLER: And you can go to food pantries like the West Side Campaign Against Hunger, where people can pick up three day's worth of groceries a month. How much they get is based on family size.

Unidentified Woman #1: Maria Santiago, numero cinco, number five.

ADLER: And true to Berg's observations, there are people who don't fit any stereotype, like King James Lewis, who says he's a singer and as a minister's son he was part of a gospel singing family. Now he sings in Little Italy, but the pickings are slim.

Mr. KING JAMES LEWIS (Singer): I go from maybe one restaurant to another. I approach the table and tell them which would they like to hear, Nat King Cole, Johnny Mathis, Sinatra or Dean Martin.

ADLER: So you basically live on tips from it?

Mr. LEWIS: Yeah, absolutely.

ADLER: Or take Suzanne Weinberg(ph), a 38-year-old woman who lives in an SRO and is originally from Texas. She says she gets $39 in food stamps a month.

Ms. SUZANNE WEINBERG: And it's really hard for me to stretch my food stamps, you know? So I don't have no food at all right now and that's why I'm here. I know what kind of cereal I want.

ADLER: On the line, she picks up cereal, peanut butter, rice, vegetables, hamburger meat, macaroni and cheese.

Unidentified Man #1: You want these extras?

Ms. WEINBERG: Okay. The toasted pastries.

ADLER: Veronica Olazabal, director of policy and research for the Food Bank of New York City, says many of these 1200 organizations operate on less than $17,000 a year.

Ms. VERONICA OLAZABAL (Food Bank of New York City): They have to cut back on their hours. They're not able to offer services seven days a week, 24 hours a day.

ADLER: And some of them have had to offer less food or turn people away. New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a new $150 million anti-poverty initiative recently. Joel Berg says that's great, but it's a bare beginning.

Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

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