April Meeting Notes & “A Peculiar Point of View,” by Susan Fowler
Staten Island Hunger Task Force April 2023 Meeting Minutes
Attending: Susan Fowler, Andrew Fairley, C Springer, Christopher Dowling, Maria Doulis, Heather Butts, Donna Scimeca, Laura Jean Watters, Michael Matthews, Cindy Roberti, Terry Troia, Gloria Lavine, Jody Stoll, Ruben Sibri, Alemayehu Ayele, Joe Tornello, Jennifer Caravaglio, Paloma Wassserstein, Giomelly Barton, Delila Nadal, Danielle Parks, Ginny Mantello, Robert Kee, Alex Khorkov, Lynell Bruno, and Carol Crocitto
Maria Doulis from the Comptroller’s Office shared the findings of Food Insecurity in the State Comptroller’s Report and took questions.
One of the facts that allowed the rates of food security to decline since the great recession of 2008 was the generous support of the federal government up to and including Covid times. Enhanced benefits allowed people to have access to food. There were substantial declines in poverty and food insecurity. Since 2021 these policies have started to lapse. For example congress did not continue the enhanced child tax credit.
Also, inflation has become unprecedentedly high. During the pandemic the census started a new survey to try and get real time data on the covid pandemics effect on households. Data shows increasing numbers of New Yorkers starting in 2021 reported difficulty paying for household expenses and did not have enough food to eat. 10.8% of all New York Households are now reporting that they don’t have enough to eat, an increase from 7% the previous year.
What they recommended was two-fold, for the federal and state governments. Federally, expanding the child tax credit really led to a reduction in poverty. Increase earned income tax credit. Emergency allotments for snap should be extended. Make it easier to access benefits and advertise them. State, Calling for Nourish New York and similar programs to be promoted and expanded. If these programs fail to grow, especially unique pilot programs, food insecurity will increase.
Terry Troia mentioned a chart that shows the increase of the cost of food in various categories. Terry Troia said the need for SNAP can be illustrated by the rising cost in food prices, and that household expenses increased illustrate the need for more robust benefits. Maria Doulis agreed and offered different examples to illustrate this.
The Federal and State increases are itemized in the report. Terry asked if the recommendations were made to the congresswoman on Staten Island or if the Comptroller’s office could make these recommendations directly. Maria Doulis pointed out that the report is publicly available and that it is more powerful to communicate to her as constituents. Andrew put the link to the reports in the chat and will add them to subsequent email blasts. Maria Doulis highlighted that there is other information in the report useful for advocacy, such as poverty levels. She and her office are happy to answer any questions anyone has if they would like to reach out.
Pantry Managers Provide Information on Food Pantries in their Schools
Jennifer Caravaglio (NYCID) shared some of her experience operating the food pantry in Curtis High School. The pantry is operational every Wednesday for students. Will be getting fresh produce and haven’t gotten that in some time. Funded through city council about $38,000 a year. Getting many families, 30 to 40. Susan Fowler asked how the students get food from the pantry. Jennifer shared that students are able to come at any time to pick up food. They prefer to get them at the end of day so they are not carrying around food.
They also have hygiene products like shampoo, conditioner, and laundry detergent. Chris Dowling asked how they record their numbers. Jennifer shared that the process is for families to sign in and the household is recorded by adults, children, and seniors. All information is recorded and handwritten.
Cindy Roberti asked if the families coming are related to students or are community families. Jennifer shared that it is both. Susan Fowler asked if there were any issues or concerns around privacy. Jennifer shared that many students are not shy about using the pantry services. There are many options for the students to get their food and protect their privacy if that is what they require. Jennifer wanted to also mention that Principal Greenfield makes announcements to all the parents and shares that the pantry is open to all other schools.
Terry Troia shared about the program at New World Prep that operated on Covid Emergency Food Funding. Food came from the Foodbank of NYC and was coordinated by the COJO Food Pantry Partnership. Called the weekend backpack program. Kids from 6th to 8th grade could participate in the program. Program sent food home with the families and used an anonymous model.
Large bin was put outside the door as kids were let out. Little food bags would be left that fit into people’s backpacks and only included enough food for 2 children for Saturday and Sunday. If you had more kids in your family you could take more bags and it provided breakfast and lunch on the weekends. The pantry itself provided 200 small bags weekly and the students packed the bags under the supervision of the social worker and family counselor. We counted the bags that were left for our metrics but bags were rarely left over. When the funding stopped the pantry stopped. It seemed to be a good model and the kids could pick up the bags at any point that was good for them.
Robert Kee shared about the pantry at CSI. About 6 or 7 years ago they started a pantry at CSI for their food insecure students. 60 to 70 percent of CUNY students were determined to be food insecure. Their pantry used to be open once a week but is now open several days a week and by appointment, Wednesday and Friday open 10:30am to 1pm and by appointment. Email goes out Monday to every student in the school and they fill out a form outlining when they want to come and get the food.
Every student is eligible and gets the email every Monday. They are averaging 35 students coming to the pantry. Over the past couple months they have added an additional Kosher pantry in partnership with Met Food at the JCC. Those items are by request and by appointment. The student self-select what they like. Items distributed are proteins, grains, veggies, pasta, sauces, and vegetables. Ramen noodles are very popular, even though it is not nutritious it is so popular they still provide it.
Because of the pandemic the process is that they will put the bags together for the students. Last year they served close to 450 students and the food was for about 900 people, so students and their dependents. Numbers have been rising every semester and the past year has been extremely challenging. They were given a grant by the Petrie Foundation where they were supplementing their non-perishable foods with a gift card to Shoprite for $25. Gift cards were given out every two weeks but they ran out in November because food insecurity was increasing so rapidly. The numbers have shown that students weren’t coming just for the gift cards. Donna Scimeca asked where the funding for the food was coming from. Robert shared the funding for the past 2 years that the Petrie Foundation provides the lion’s share of food and funding. They also received money from the CSI foundation and donations from faculty and staff. There are also several churches that have given quarterly checks to support the pantry.
They also have food drives, and historically have had a relationship with Project Hospitality where specific items were taken and given to Project Hospitality. The challenge is that there are times where they will get large food donations but many of the items are past their expiration date, unfortunately those types of drives do not provide a lot of product. Donna Scimeca asked if there were any efforts to work with the campus food services to provide food. Robert Kee shared that as of now that does not happen but they have been trying to engage that partnership.
They do however have a program where if a student needs food right away they will put $10 on their dolphin card and the student can get hot food that day. The pantry tries to stock some food that people can eat right away as well. They are not licensed as a non-perishable pantry but there were times where they were able to meet with City Harvest and get a few boxes of fresh food to be available right away.
They do not have the capacity to store refrigerated foods. Susan Fowler pointed out that some schools have dorms. Robert Kee shared that maybe at most 10% of students coming to pantries are from residence halls and that those students have been pretty self-sufficient. Susan Fowler shared that there is a program where if there is an extra meal on your meal card that you could give that meal to someone else and asked if Robert has looked into that. Robert shared that had just come up at the end of December and it is on the list of things the administration will address.
He believed students with extra funds would give it to other students. Susan outlined that it is a national program that is supposed to be student led. Terry Troia asked if the 900 students were mentioned for a week or month? Robert clarified that that number was for the year and that they could come weekly. Terry Troia asked if they knew how many bags they gave out. Robert Kee shared that every student that goes to the pantry will get at least one bag. If a student tells someone that she has 2 children that person would get extra bags of food. Each bag is double the food bank[‘s recommendation because of the pandemic.
Jody Stoll shared that they were recently asked to help a program with juniors and seniors. They were asked what they could do to help food insecure students. She asks how successful is giving out gift cards because many of them are against giving out gift cards and bags. Robert shared that the bags they gave out were reusable and that most people had no issues using the Shoprite gift cards and they were happy to get them. Some students wanted the gift card without the food, and he would ask if there was something the pantry was missing and the student would say they just wanted the gift card. That didn’t demonstrate a need, but if it were for example because there was a lack of food the gift card would be given out.
The gift card was supposed to be a supplement to the food. Jody Stoll asked if they ever looked into what people were purchasing in the gift cards because they had concerns the gift cards were being spent on unhealthy foods. Robert Kee shared that they had not looked into that because they stay out of a judgmental space when people are in need of food, and that they try to give out healthy food wherever they can. They also provide education on what to look for in healthy food.
Students did not want the no frills food and preferred recognizable brands. Robert would just strategically purchase the food when it was on sale. Susan Fowler pointed out that research indicates that people prefer to buy healthy food and she put the link to the article in the chat. Chris Dowling asked how the data is tracked and Robert Kee shared that he has a google spreadsheet that tracks all the data. He also shares that a lack of staffing is an issue so they get help from students wherever they can, but the students do not have any access to the data.
Dr. Ginny Mantello posed a Question to the Task Force
Dr. Ginny Mantello asked a question to the whole task force and asked if a collective ask from the organizations is something the Hunger Task Force could do. Is there something in the future they can think about where the task force can come together to ask questions and address needs for the whole island. Susan Fowler shared that the task force has been working on this and talking about the idea of making the organization more formal so they can do these things.
Dr. Mantello was aware of this as she has been part of many of these conversations; what she was specifically talking about was the model presented by CSI. Terry Troia shared an interesting model where the Federal government funded the Food Bank and the Food Bank funded two food distribution hubs on Staten Island. One was CHASI and the other was Project Hospitality. COJO operated as a Kosher food hub as well and was expanded to 13 pantries in Jewish communities.
The funding ended on June 30th of 2022. All entities had to show an outreach plan to loop in and provide for their pantries. Millions of dollars are needed, and at the state level Nourish NY is receiving additional dollars to push out produce. That allocation can come from Washington or from the state.
Terry’s suggestion is to bring in the Food Bank and talk about our efforts in the past and how they can help Staten Island. The group discussed who to reach out to for help advocating for Staten Island food needs. Laura Jean Watters had a conversation with Holly and the folks at Wagner and is under the impression Holly is doing a lot on her own and that the attempts to have discussion with administration have gone nowhere.
Someone at Wagner would have to go to the board of directors for emergency food funding. Food service at Wagner did not seem interested in participating in any dialogue. Susan Fowler says that is interesting because some years ago the food service was donating food to City Harvest. Terry Troia said we have a job ahead of us to reach out to Wagner College.
Susan believed it was too late to do the governance report and asked Andrew Fairley to send out the group’s decisions via Email. He agreed to do so.
Acceptance of last month’s minutes
Heather Butts proposed the acceptance of the minutes and proposed the approval of the meeting minutes. Chris Dowling seconded. Jody Stoll noticed that her name has not been on the last few minutes and Chris Dowling shared that names can be retrieved through the zoom account. All voted in the affirmative. The next meeting will be in May.
A Peculiar Point of View
By Susan Fowler
I had a friend, a land surveyor, who was also an artist. When he got bored during setups, he would look around through his theodolite and sketch whatever caught his eye. He ended up with hundreds of one-and-a-half inch circular drawings.
Since April, I have been answering calls and emails from people who, when the stay-at-home orders came down from Albany, found their cupboards empty and no way to fill them. Normally, I do a computer services kind of job for City Harvest, New York’s largest food rescue organization, but during COVID19, the office was overwhelmed with calls and emails from people looking for food. I was asked to answer them.
As I found pantries that might deliver or schools where the callers or writers could pick up meals, these calls and emails began to feel like peepholes into people’s lives—not their everyday lives but what the pandemic had done to them.
Most of the contacts were short—”this is my ZIP code, I need delivery”—and I’d give them the relevant information. However, sometimes I got to talk to the callers and find out more about their situations.
Love Thy Neighbor
About one in 10 calls were from people concerned about their friends, neighbors, parents, or grandparents. For example, one woman called, somewhat exasperated, for a pair of neighbors. “They say they’re fine,” she said, “but they have dementia. So they probably aren’t.” I gave her the information for New York City free-food deliveries—all they would have to do is open the door.
We got a call from a man on Staten Island: His next-door neighbor had just moved to the U.S. from Albania, had a family, was about to lose his job, knew very little English, and had no food. I found two pantries that would deliver boxes of food, one that day and the other the following week. The neighbor agreed to coordinate the deliveries and translate if needed.
People shared food with their neighbors, too. A woman in Chelsea called in April to find nearby pantries, and when I called back in June to see how she was, she said, “We’re doing fine. Thank you so much for asking! NYC has been delivering food almost every day and our neighbor has been giving us some food. My favorite lunch is the grain and carrot dish, which is quite tasty. My roommate eats the beef and garbanzo beans.” She also asked us to lobby the City against selling off NYCHA houses land to developers. I passed the information along to our advocacy department.
Sometimes the neighbors weren’t so friendly. A Haitian woman living in Rossville, Staten Island, mentioned that her white neighbors treated her disdainfully, crossing the street if she came outside. I found her some pantries, and when I called back a few weeks later to see if we helped her, she said, “Yes, you did help me with the food. I was so scared back then. I am very aware of how many people are hunters looking for the weaknesses in others. But things are changing, thank God, [because of the George Floyd protests]. We’ve just been holding that pain. That pain has got to go. Equality isn’t enough, we need equity. If one of us can’t breathe, we’re all affected.”
Note that Sandy Ground, part of Rossville, was one of the first free Black communities in the U.S. before the Civil War and a stop on the Underground Railroad; some of the original families still live there. But starting in the 1980s, developers built and sold tract houses to families from Bay Ridge and Bensonhurst who didn’t know the area’s history or seem to care. However, a parent recently started a petition to add a section on Sandy Ground to the NYC Department of Education fourth-grade social studies curriculum, so perhaps this attitude will start to change.
About thirty calls came from professionals such as nurses, health insurance companies, government agencies, and non-profit organizations; four were from schools. These people were looking for information to support their clients or constituents.
We got a call from a police officer in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, who wanted information for a woman in his precinct who “tends to be violent” and had three kids. I gave him the New York City free-meals delivery information, a few local schools offering three free meals a day per person, and three pantries. For his own use, I sent him my Brooklyn cheat sheet, which lists all the resources I know about for the borough, and my All Boroughs cheat sheet, which I use if the caller doesn’t give me a location. This sheet also includes websites for pantries on Long Island, Westchester, and other places in the country, plus unusual information such as burial grants and free pet-food sources.
A nurse from Jamaica, Queens, called. Her COVID patient was recently released from the hospital, had no food in the house and no money. He didn’t want to tell her what bad shape he was in, but she managed to get the truth out of him. I gave her some pantries and volunteer delivery options for her client and ended by saying, “Please tell him from me that there are many people in his situation and that the staff at most pantries bend over backwards to be helpful and reassuring. Once he’s well and whole again, he can pay it forward.”
The idea of the “pay it forward” response came from emergency food provider colleagues on Staten Island. In the weeks after Hurricane Sandy, members of the Staten Island Hunger Task Force, a consortium of food pantries, soup kitchens, and other non-profits, met to talk about what they were seeing at their pantries. One pantry leader said, “We have people on the line who are in tears—’I used to be the person donating to food pantries! How can I be taking from a pantry now?'” Another said, “We’re seeing people who are very angry because they don’t want to be here, and they pick fights.”
Elaine Smith, a local psychotherapist, took us through some methods for reducing tension on the line. One of her suggestions was to point out to the clients that the situation isn’t permanent and, when they were back on their feet, they could help others.
There is a curious warning in Hebrews (13:2): Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. During COVID, angels showed up, but I don’t think they knew that’s what they were.
For example, a woman who lived alone on Staten Island called and by the time she reached me, she was frantic. “I have $8 in my checking account!” She was HIV-positive and had been trying unsuccessfully to get disability, thwarted at every point by bureaucracy. I gave her the name, location, and times for a pantry nearby but also called Community Health Action of SI (CHASI) for her, which had started doing emergency deliveries. By the end of our conversations (it took a few to figure out the delivery schedule), she was calmer and more herself. CHASI’s team delivered boxes to her within a day.
Another woman called from a building on Coney Island with many veterans and some young families. I sent her pantry and delivery information and suggested she talk to the vets about going to the commissary at Fort Hamilton to get supplies for themselves and their neighbors. The commissary prices are discounted.
I called her back in June and asked if she was able to get food for her building. “Yes,” she said. “A man came by five or six times a week with prepared food from restaurants. Security had a list of tenants who needed food and the front desk would call them down to choose what they wanted—he had vegan food, pasta, rice, all in containers. Some of the containers said which restaurant had provided the food.”
“I have no idea who he was or where he came from. He stopped about a month ago.”
I couldn’t find out who this man was either, despite my access to many maps and lists.
Notice that she didn’t follow any of my suggestions and, in fact, I’m not sure anyone did. But maybe that wasn’t the point. Maybe the point was just to connect, for a moment, with someone who was concerned with their wellbeing: When they peeked out of their homes, they found an openhearted world waiting for them.
Banner Image: Person looking through a dumpster for food. Image Credit – HD Wallpaper