Hunger is a relentless thief. It robs a person of their dignity, their physical health and mental well-being, their ability to see beyond the next meal. It steals their sense of agency and the hope that things could get better. While it often strikes those long in the grip of poverty, it doesn’t spare the newly sick, the bereaved, or the recently unemployed — people who may never have wanted for food until life took a hard turn.
Before COVID-19 upended everyday life in New York, an estimated 1.2 million New Yorkers were dealing with food insecurity. Now, as we enter the second year of this crisis, that number has jumped to 1.6 million people.
Who are New Yorkers struggling with food insecurity? Some are elderly Holocaust survivors, like Esther (not her real name), 82, who lost her husband to COVID at the start of the pandemic. She couldn’t leave her apartment to shop for groceries without risking infection and didn’t have the technological know-how or equipment to order groceries online. She also didn’t have the financial means to order from a restaurant, so she went without. Her story has become painfully familiar.
Pre-pandemic, tens of thousands of elderly New Yorkers would gather daily at senior centers for hot lunches. When COVID restrictions shut down congregate meals, they lost access to a dependable source of nutritious food.
Though elderly New Yorkers have been especially hard-hit, they aren’t the only ones. Food insecurity is wreaking havoc on working families living paycheck to paycheck, the newly unemployed, and small business owners. It’s impacted taxi drivers and teachers, single parents, and college students. Black and brown families. Jewish families. Muslim families. And while the hungry are our community members and neighbors, we often don’t know who they are or how hunger disrupts their lives. Hunger is suffered desperately and silently.
For the last year, recognizing the economic strain caused by the pandemic, government and philanthropy have stepped up as never before.
Last May, Mayor Bill de Blasio, in partnership with City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, had the foresight to allocate $25 million to meet food needs across the city. In tandem, funders and philanthropies, like UJA-Federation of New York, significantly increased our funding to increase food distribution. We pulled from resources saved for a rainy day because our communities are submerged by need.
Since last March, UJA-Federation has allocated $4 million in emergency funding to support food programs, on top of nearly $5 million normally allocated. Just last month, we allocated an additional $2.8 million in emergency funds to help feed New York.
City and philanthropic funding have already made a real difference. It’s with thanks to this joint support that UJA’s primary partner in kosher food distribution, Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, was able to significantly expand its capacity, providing over 15 million pounds of food to 358 organizations throughout New York City before the end of 2020, as compared to the 5 million pounds distributed in 2019. In addition to serving kosher pantries, Met Council has also supported Halal-observant communities that have similar dietary restrictions, and are lacking emergency food programs that are culturally and religiously sensitive.
This is how New Yorkers take care of one another. And we cannot waver now.
Many of the challenges of COVID-19 have been unprecedented and complex. This one is not. The city funding ran out Dec. 31 and the growth of food insecurity in this city has shown little sign of slowing in the new year. Philanthropic funding is critical and we have gladly done our part, but it’s also clear that philanthropy is no substitute for government dollars. And thanks to federal legislators, the passage of the COVID relief bill is a massive accomplishment and one that will make new funding available to help struggling New Yorkers.
Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty was able to significantly expand its capacity, providing over 15 million pounds of food to 358 organizations throughout New York City before the end of 2020.
To avoid food pantry closures or decreases in capacity in 2021, we ask Mayor de Blasio to again authorize $25 million in emergency funding to Met Council, United Way, Food Bank, City Harvest, Catholic Charities, Hunger Free America and the hundreds of organizations they support that are working around the clock to combat food insecurity for people like Esther.
An addendum to Esther’s story: Like so many Holocaust survivors, Esther endured malnutrition in her youth, an indignity that she should never face again. We are making sure she never does. Today, she is one of Met Council’s clients, and city funding coupled with UJA’s philanthropy has ensured that she can get food delivered to her home every two weeks.
She’s counting on us to keep going, and so are 1.6 million others like her. Let’s not let them down.
David Greenfield is CEO of Met Council. Eric S. Goldstein is CEO of UJA-Federation of New York.