In the Shadow of Rising Prosperity, Rising Hunger

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More people are seeking help at the food pantries, and rising rents seem to be the reason

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The line outside the food pantry on Hanson Place in Fort Greene

At the Seventh Day Adventist Food Pantry on Hanson Place in Fort Greene, a line of residents stretches down the block during the pantry’s Thursday afternoon pickup. The pantry has seen a marked increase in clients over the past few years, according to its director, Clyde Semper. Last year, the pantry served about 125 people a week. This year, according to the organization’s secretary, Cheryl Murray, that number has gone up to close to 200. During the warmer months, the pantry also gives out free fresh produce on Sunday afternoons, generally bringing in around another 75 clients.

But Semper believes that these increases are just the tip of the iceberg. And the hidden factor may be rising rents.

In Fort Greene and Clinton Hill, change is everywhere. The neighborhood’s crime rate plummeted 72% between 1993 and 2010 and over the past decade the median income has steadily risen to $56,000 a year. Yet in the shadow of these optimistic statistics, hunger lurks, largely hidden behind the neighborhood’s brownstones and new construction. A study released last month from Food Bank For New York City shows that hunger in Brooklyn increased by 10% between 2009 and 2014, and 3% in Community District 2, which includes Fort Greene and Clinton Hill.

The study measures food insecurity by a metric called the “meal gap”—basically the number of missing meals—according to Triada Stampas, Food Bank For New York City’s Vice President of Research and Public Affairs. Food Bank For New York City is the main supplier for soup kitchens and food pantries around the city, 70% of which are run by faith-based organizations.

According to more detailed data from Food Bank, Fort Greene’s meal gap is in the top 25% in the city, and both Clinton Hill and Fort Greene have hunger rates higher than the overall city average.

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Data courtesy of Food Bank For New York City

“Food is one of the few places in the household budget where families can exercise discretion,” says Stampas. “Healthcare costs, transportation costs, heating, rent—those are all non-negotiables. So families generally end up cutting back on either the quality or quantity of their food.” Stampas says increased hunger generally goes hand-in-hand, unsurprisingly, with higher rates of poverty and unemployment, yet in the past five to six years, says Stampas, Brooklyn has seen decreasing rates of both. So Food Bank compared the two boroughs that had the highest rates of hunger, the Bronx and Brooklyn, to see if they could find an explanation.

“The thing that’s different is the rent burden,” says Stampas. “The median rent burden in Brooklyn is 64%, so it makes sense that food insecurity would be high, even as unemployment and poverty are trending down.” In fact, the Citizen’s Budget Commission categorizes anyone paying more than 50% of his or rent income in rent as “severely rent burdened.”

Additionally, adds Stampas, there is less money for free food. In the years immediately following the 2008 recession, 250 soup kitchens and pantries shuttered across New York, she said, most of them in the same areas most affected by the recession. A 2013 reduction in Federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) funding has also shrunk the resources available for those struggling with food insecurity. This means that each household receiving food assistance through the SNAP program lost anywhere from $10-$39 worth of food per month, or about 16 meals per month per family, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Alexis George, Jr., a pantry assistant at the Siloam Presbyterian Church food pantry, says that these cuts have meant a nearly 40 to 50% reduction in their funding, meaning that even clients who are collecting food for a large household may only be able to get one or two bags of groceries, at most.

“Luckily,” says Stampas. “While Brooklyn has a level of need that is troubling, it also has more resources.” The highest concentration of food pantries and soup kitchens in New York City are in Brooklyn, with more than 200 scattered across the borough. Still there is no shortage of clients for the neighborhood’s food pantries.

And those who run the pantries say that they’ve noticed a change in types of people they’re serving. “We’ve especially seen an increase in working people, people who have jobs, who come” to the pantry, says Semper, a pattern that staff at other food pantries have also noted.

Olga Manns directs the Seventh Day Adventist Bethel church’s food pantry, also in Fort Greene. On average, the Adventist church serves about 200 people a week, and while Manns says that the pantry has always served a diverse community, over the past two or three years, she says she has seen an increasing number of younger people—adults in their twenties and thirties—coming to the pantry. Alexis George, Jr. at Siloam Presbyterian Church said that his pantry has also seen a greater number of younger adults and people with children in the past four years. “Everyone here is facing financial issues,” he says.

“Sometimes people are ashamed to come to the pantry and be seen standing in the line,” Director Clyde Semper said. “But it doesn’t matter what job you have if you can’t put food on the table.” And, indeed, that’s getting harder for many to do.

Cedric Cross is a resident of Clinton Hill and a client at the SDA Bethel food pantry. He’s retired and has lived in the neighborhood for most of his life. Last November, his landlord raised his rent from $521 a month to $660 a month. Cross said that his landlord told him it was because “the neighborhood is changing, it’s getting more expensive.”

Cross says he goes to the pantry mostly for fresh vegetables. “The bodegas don’t have healthy food. Sometimes, I go to C-Town grocery store, but they’ve raised the price on stuff.” He says he can’t afford to shop anywhere else.

Back at the SDA food pantry on Hanson Place, Semper lingers at the door for another half an hour after the 5 p.m. closing time. He holds the door open, welcoming the stragglers who timidly ask if the place is still open, calling to his team to let them know one more is coming down to the basement pantry.

“The neighborhood is changing,” says Semper. “But it’s leaving some people behind.”

*An earlier draft of this article mistakenly referred to food pantries as food banks in the title. We regret the error.

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