Imagine being employed full-time and still not being able to make ends meet. Imagine having to choose between buying food and paying for heat in the winter or fuel to get to your job. Imagine skipping meals just to make what little food you have stretch.
For too many Central New Yorkers, that’s a reality. According to a 2006 study commissioned by the Food Bank of Central New York, more people than ever before are receiving emergency food assistance from the organization’s programs in the 11 counties it serves. Some 75 percent of food pantries have seen an increase in their number of clients in the last four years.
It’s a devastating trifecta that drives people, even those who are gainfully employed, to seek emergency food assistance: low and stagnant wages, rising costs of energy, housing and child care and shrinking health coverage by employers. All of those factors combine to leave less money in people’s pockets, resulting in tough choices and, all too often, hunger.
“The fact that so many working people still have to go to a soup kitchen or food pantry to make ends meet shows there’s something structurally wrong with the economy,” said Thomas Slater, executive director of the Food Bank of Central New York, which provides almost 7.5 million meals a year. “If you work, you should be able to provide enough for your family. But we see that the jobs being created do not provide salaries that keep families out of the food lines. It is a tragedy to see more and more people relying on emergency food assistance in a country of such wealth.”
Serving the suburbs
As the need grows, more and more organizations are stepping up to fill the gaps. In the state of New York alone, there are more than 3,000 soup kitchens, food pantries and shelters. Here in Onondaga County, there are 90 food pantries, the majority of which work through the Interreligious Food Consortium of Central New York.
“If you’re in need, call us and we’ll refer you to your neighborhood food pantry,” said Michelle Jordan, director of the Interreligious Food Consortium, which just entered its 26th year of service.
Jordan said there are numerous food pantries set up in the suburbs.
“We recognize that hunger is not just an inner-city problem,” she said. “It’s important to have those resources available in the rural and suburban areas as well. Especially with the cost of gas, it can be hard for those people to get out to the city.”
In both suburban and rural areas, food pantries are assigned based on school district. In a large district like Liverpool, the population served is further divided by neighborhood. For example, Jordan said, the food pantry at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Roman Catholic Church off Route 31 serves Casual Estates.
The Food Consortium serves as kind of a clearinghouse for those local food pantries; the organization is open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday.
“All pantries have the same mission, but it takes resources,” Jordan said. “Many of the pantries are run by volunteers so they’re not open all the time, so we help with answering questions and screening.”
Since hunger and poverty go hand in hand, the Interreligious Food Consortium also helps to set clients up with other programs like HEAP, which provides assistance with energy costs, and WIC, which helps women with small children.
Schools step in
Residents of the Liverpool school district can also, in many cases, turn to their schools. Long Branch, Elmcrest and Willow Field elementary schools have all set up food pantries to serve their students’ families.
“The impetus came from a focus at the elementary level on poverty last year,” said WFE Principal Henry “Chick” Quattrini. “It’s a quiet mission we decided to begin to serve the parents in need in our school community. We decided we wanted to provide support to them.”
Willow Field’s pantry assigns items to each grade level to balance the food in the pantry. While students in one grade level are asked to bring soap and toiletry items, students in another grade are asked to bring soup and canned goods.
“It keeps us from having too much of one thing and allows us to provide full meals to families,” Quattrini said.
A year-round problem
Jordan said she wished people would recognize the fact that hunger doesn’t end with the new year and would help keep pantries supplied year round.
“By the end of January and February, the pantries are hurting,” she said. “The giving tapers off after the holidays. People have been so generous, and we hate to keep asking for more, but there’s hunger long after Christmas is over.”
Quattrini said that, while the school holds larger food drives during the holidays, the pantry will remain open all year.
“People are hungry throughout the year,” he said. “We want to keep it supplied and make it available all year.”
Quattrini, like Slater, blamed the faltering economy for the increase in hunger and for the changing demographics in the Liverpool district.
“More and more people are struggling to make ends meet,” he said. “At the same time, people are becoming wealthier every day. The reality is that the demographics of the community are changing — the gap between the haves and the have-nots is growing. Less of the middle class is remaining, and that’s affecting our students, too. The more we can do to support the kids, not just their educational and emotional needs, but their physical needs, the better.”
If you or someone you know is in need of emergency food assistance, contact the Interreligious Food Consortium of Central New York at 474-8855.
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.